MEXICO CITY – Ever since Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was captured on Saturday, much buzz has been generated over how this major turn of events will affect the war on drugs. And while Mexican and world leaders celebrate an indisputable win for President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration, it should not be forgotten that the fight against organized crime is far from over.
Similarly to when Zetas leader Miguel Treviño was arrested in July 2013, many fear a bloody internal fight over the leadership of Guzmán's Sinaloa cartel. But it is widely believed there is a successor in place: Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who for years has been El Chapo’s right-hand man.
Zambada, who was born near Culiacán, capital of Sinaloa state, in 1948, was a cattle-herder and farmer before rising in the cartel to become a drug lord with a standing almost as high as El Chapo’s. Zambada controlled many operations within the cartel, including managing the multi-ton quantities of cocaine from Colombia.
Prior to his alliance with El Chapo, he worked with other drug groups, most notably the Juárez cartel on the U.S. border. When Juárez leader Amado Carrillo died during plastic surgery, Zambada formed his own organization in the late 1990s.
His is a half-century successful career in organized crime – and he has never spent a night in jail, despite the $5 million reward U.S. authorities have put on his head.
Furthermore, he vowed never to get captured. In his only-ever newspaper interview four years ago, Zambada told veteran Mexican journalist Julio Scherer that should he get arrested, he would commit suicide. “I panic about the idea of being locked up,” he said in the interview, later published in weekly newspaper El Proceso.
“I do not know if I would have the courage to kill myself, but I would like to think I would,” he added.
Zambada has always kept a lower profile than El Chapo, who aside from being his leader was a close friend. He is said to live in a remote house in the mountains, and he still enjoys farming in his free time. He is media-savvy and generous to those under him – it is rumored that years ago, when drug lords moved around Mexico more freely, waiters at his favorite hotel in Mazatlán fought over serving him because of the $100 tips he used to leave.
Together with wife Rosario Niebla, Zambada used part of his wealth to open a shelter for single mothers called Niño Feliz (“Happy Child”) in his birthplace of El Álamo. Mexican government officials have accused the home of being a money-laundering scam.
His crime career has been followed by some of his seven children. Two of them, Vicente and Serafín Zambada, are currently in U.S. jails. Vicente was arrested by the Mexican Army in March 2009 and extradited to the States; Serafín was captured in November 2013 in Arizona.
Just as those who have warned that El Chapo’s capture does not mean a weakening of the Sinaloa cartel, Zambada said in his 2008 Proceso interview that his hypothetical future arrest would not bring down organized crime.
“My case would be exemplary, a warning to others. They shoot me dead and euphoria breaks out,” he said, in a close description of the current reaction to El Chapo’s arrest.
“But a few days later we realize nothing has changed. That’s because the problem of drug trafficking involves millions. Whether the bosses are jailed, killed or extradited, their substitutes are already out there.”