After almost ten years of bloody gangland warfare, most of Mexico's major drug cartels have been decimated and split into smaller gangs, with dozens of capos either arrested or killed.
Of the seven major cartels former President Felipe Calderón declared war on in 2006, only one retains most of its original structure and power: the Sinaloa Cartel.
And the Sinaloa Cartel just got its leader back.
Immediately after Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, Mexico's most notorious drug lord, escaped the maximum-security prison of Altiplano on Saturday, speculation began about whether he would return to his former turf and retake control of the criminal organization.
But most experts believe it's a moot point because, they say, he never lost control of the cartel in the first place. One only needs to look at the way he was able to escape.
Guzmán fled through a mile-long tunnel dug from what authorities say was a building especially set up for the prison break in plain sight of the prison. The tunnel was equipped with a ventilation system and even a customized motorcycle most likely used to remove the dirt while digging towards the shower area of the drug lord's prison cell.
“The mere fact that he was capable of getting support from so many people to organize his escape is strong evidence of Guzmán retaining control of his organization,” Javier Oliva Posada, a political scientist and national security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), told Fox News Latino. “He needed electricians, carpenters, construction workers. Mobilizing that kind of manpower means he was still firmly in charge,” he added.
After being arrested February last year, Guzmán spent roughly 18 months in Altiplano, far shorter than his previous stint in Guadalajara's Puente Grande prison, where he was held from 1993 until he escaped in a laundry cart in 2001. Mexican and U.S. authorities repeatedly stated that, during that period, he continued to firmly control the cartel, leading many to believe it's unlikely he would have lost much power during his brief incarceration in Altiplano.
“I have no doubt he's still the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel,” said Fernando Rivera, a former federal intelligence official now working as a consultant. “Even without him, the Sinaloa Cartel would have continued to function, but his escape clearly showed he hasn't lost any of his ability to mobilize his organization's power.”
The Sinaloa Cartel started out humbly in the 1980's, controlling a drug smuggling route through Mexico's west into Arizona. Under the auspices of major capos such as the still at large Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and the reportedly deceased Juan José Esparragoza Morena, alias "El Azul" (The Blue One), the cartel rose to prominence as a loosely organized alliance of cells trafficking drugs almost as a multinational corporation, with Guzmán as its CEO.
According to even the most conservative studies done in recent years, the total value of Mexican drug trafficking amounts to more than $5 billion per year. The Sinaloa Cartel, with its core territory in the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico's northwestern state of Sinaloa, an area known for its extensive marihuana and opium plantations, allegedly controls half of the market. Few expect Guzmán not to return to lead such an enormously profitable business.
“I reckon he will evade justice and head back to the hills of Sinaloa,” said British journalist Malcolm Beith, author of the book "The Last Narco," which chronicled the hunt for the drug lord. “If he had plans to just sit back and retire, he could have done that more peacefully in prison, with weekend visits from family and security from rivals.”
According to Fernando Rivera, his escape may in the short run disrupt the structure of the cartel somewhat.
“There will be some realignments in the cartel's leadership. There were quite a few young upstarts who wanted to be his successor,” he told FNL. “But he will quickly assume his position again.”
To many Mexicans, the matter over who controls what chunk of the underworld is less important than whether Guzmán's return will reignite a bloody drug war that has cost an estimated 80.000 people their lives since 2006. Most observers, however, don't expect violence to suddenly flare up with Guzmán back in charge.
“He will most likely attempt to broaden his organization, but I don't think that will necessarily lead to more violence,” said Javier Oliva of the UNAM. “Chapo and associates such as Azul are drug traffickers above anything else. I don't think he will be begin to challenge the power of the government so much.”
Challenging Mexico's federal government is precisely what the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), based in Jalisco state in central Mexico, has done plenty in recent months. The group has repeatedly attacked federal security forces, killing 15 federal police agents last April and even shooting down an army helicopter in May.
In a recent interview, Tomás Zerón, head of Mexico's federal Criminal Investigation Agency, said CJNG and Sinaloa are the only two major cartels still standing, with most other crime groups now operating as regional cells. The upstart CJNG, however, is an offshoot of an organization founded by Ignacio Coronel, a former associate of Guzmán killed by federal security forces in 2010.
Does Guzmán's escape mean the two major players will now battle each other for dominance?
Jan-Albert Hootsen is a freelance writer based in Mexico City. Follow him on Twitter: @Jayhootsen