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MEXICO CITY – Like a Fortune 500 company losing an executive, the powerful Sinaloa cartel is likely to stay in business at least in the short term selling billions of dollars of illegal drugs, despite the arrest of its legendary leader, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
But the longer term fate of a criminal ring likened to an international "corporation" is anything but clear, as authorities pursue other top leaders and weaker rivals dream of moving in.
Guzman's arrest Saturday was undoubtedly a major blow, coming on the heels of more than a dozen key arrests of lieutenants and lower level operators in recent months. Yet the cartel still has a worldwide distribution network and is the major supplier of cocaine to the United States. The operation didn't touch the cartel's immense political power, nurtured through the bribery of corrupt officials, or its thriving money laundering operations.
"As long as these other structures remain in place, all things being equal, Sinaloa will be able to continue to operate if not as normal, at least as the most powerful criminal organization in Mexico," said David Shirk, director of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute.
Guzman, who made Forbes Magazine's lists of billionaires and most powerful people, was first among equals with partners Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and Juan Jose Esparragoza, known as "El Azul," both of whom remain at large. Despite rumors to the contrary, Guzman worked closely with Zambada. They had a clear vision, said Guillermo Valdes, former head of Mexico's top domestic intelligence agency, not only with respect to their adversaries but also of the business plan for trafficking cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine in some 54 countries.
In other recent takedowns of major cartels, the Mexican government had to hit more than one leader before they were dismantled or scattered into smaller gangs. One by one, the Arellano Felix brothers in Tijuana were arrested or killed over the last decade, as were the Beltran Leyva brothers from 2008 to 2011. Though the Mexican marines killed Zeta leader Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano in October 2012, the power of the group didn't diminish until the other leader, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, was arrested last summer.
Some predict Sinaloa is about to see the same fate.
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, said to expect more arrests because authorities penetrated the cartel's communications system in catching Guzman.
"Our ability to crack their code will not bode well for their future," he said, comparing Guzman's capture to the 1993 killing of Pablo Escobar of Colombia's Medillin cartel, once the most powerful criminal organization whose demise helped grow cartels such as Sinaloa. "When he fell, the cartels started to unravel."
In fact, some fear the 56-year-old narco's capture could spark more violence, though no Mexican cartels seem strong enough at the moment to make a major play.
Sinaloa's main rivals, the Zetas, have been substantially weakened, and other groups have become too local to rival Guzman's international reach.
A greater risk may be the fragmentation of the cartel as internal groups vie for pieces of the pie, though most see a smooth transition of power.
"It could mean a new distribution of territory in the country," said Javier Valdez, founder of the Riodoce newspaper in Culiacan and author most recently of "With a Grenade in the Mouth," about drug-war victims.
Since Guzman escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001, he grew his cartel to be one of the largest in the world, with tentacles extending from Argentina to Australia. Nobody outside the cartel leadership knows the extent of its power or business, but estimates say Sinaloa handles 25 to 45 percent of all drugs entering the United States, with revenues around $3 billion a year. Last year, Forbes named Guzman the world's 67th most powerful person, between U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner and New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson.
Sinaloa is believed to operate with an extended network of officials and lookouts on the payroll, especially in the western state for which the cartel is named. Both a state and federal police chief have been arrested for alleged ties to Sinaloa or its allies, only to later be released. When the Mexican marines mounted their offensive on Saturday, it was without alerting any local law enforcement.
"Local and state authorities are in the service of the Sinaloa cartel," Valdez said.
The difference may lie in whether Guzman is extradited to the United States, where he has been indicted in at least seven U.S. district courts, said Edgardo Buscaglia, an expert on the cartel and senior scholar at Columbia University. There, he won't be able to escape like he did from a Mexican prison and could provide key information. Mexican authorities on Monday announced that Guzman had been formally charged, starting a legal process that could make swift extradition unlikely.
"We have to trust that he will be extradited ... and from there, that they begin to identify from his testimony the criminal enterprises at work," Buscaglia said.
Even though the long-term fate of Sinaloa is unclear, everyone agrees on the bottom line: The drugs will still continue to flow as they have so far, even with the takedown of other Mexican cartels.
"In drug trafficking, as long as there is demand, there will be a supply," Guillermo Valdes said. "It's like energy. You can't create or destroy it. It only transforms."
Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo, Mark Stevenson and Michael Weissenstein in Mexico City, Adriana Gomez Licon in Culiacan and Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Katherine Corcoran on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kathycorcoran