“Los Chapitos,” or “the little Chapos,” the four siblings who are El Chapo’s sons, have rebuilt and diversified the business, creating a fentanyl empire that is poisoning America.
In January 2017, days after Mexico extradited the notorious drug trafficker Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to the United States, local cops in his home state of Sinaloa fell under attack.
Some were shot dead in broad daylight. Others vanished and were never found. In all, 13 police officers died or disappeared in the months that followed.
That spree was the start of a shift in tactics within Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel, according to four intelligence and security officials, one that signaled the arrival of a new force inside one of Mexico’s most powerful drug syndicates: the kingpin’s four sons.
Collectively known as Los Chapitos, or “the little Chapos,” the four siblings were once mocked by adversaries as entitled princelings more concerned with flashing their wealth on Instagram than the grubby work of moving tons of cocaine into the United States. Yet the brothers have resuscitated a drug empire teetering after their father was locked behind U.S. bars and diversified the business by embracing a new line of synthetic drugs.
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Their early bet on fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin, helped supercharge an opioid epidemic that has placed them squarely in the crosshairs of American anti-narcotics agents.
Last month, U.S. authorities laid out extensive new charges against the brothers in indictments filed in multiple jurisdictions, and upped bounties for two of the siblings to $10 million apiece, cementing their status as some of the world’s most powerful and wanted drug lords. U.S. officials portrayed them as the face of a highly addictive poison that’s killing nearly 200 Americans daily.
“The Chapitos pioneered the manufacture and trafficking of the deadliest drug our country has ever faced,” Anne Milgram, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) chief, said at an April 14 press conference in Washington. “They inherited a global drug empire and made it more ruthless, more violent and more deadly.”
On Tuesday, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned one of the brothers, Joaquín Jr., for his role in the Los Chapitos fentanyl network, alleging that he is involved in the management of “super labs.” His three siblings had been sanctioned previously for purported trafficking.
Los Chapitos, for the first time ever, released a public letter last week denying claims that they traffic fentanyl and rebutting allegations made by U.S. officials in the Washington press conference.
“We have never produced, manufactured or marketed fentanyl or any of its derivatives. We are victims of persecution and they made us a scapegoat,” the brothers said in the letter. Mexico’s Milenio news channel aired its contents on May 3, along with an interview of Guzmán family lawyer José Refugio Rodríguez, who provided the broadcaster with the document.
Denying that they head the Sinaloa Cartel, the brothers said drug traffickers and the media have exploited their father’s fame to implicate them in crimes of which they are innocent.
El Chapo is serving a life sentence in a “Supermax” prison in Colorado. Mariel Colón Miro, Guzmán’s U.S.-based attorney, said her client was unable to comment due to restrictions barring him from speaking to the media.
The four brothers, two born to El Chapo’s first wife, the others to another, range in age from 33 to 40, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Headed by Iván, El Chapo’s oldest son, the siblings have emerged as key figures in the Sinaloa Cartel, U.S. and Mexican anti-narcotics officials said. While the syndicate is a loose confederation of trafficking factions that cooperate on logistics and security, the Guzmáns’ bloc is a pillar of the organization, the officials said, and Los Chapitos have quickly consolidated power within it.
To chronicle the rise of this new generation of “Narco Juniors,” as children of established traffickers are known in Mexico, Reuters spoke with four Sinaloa Cartel operatives and visited a house where gang members assembled pills stuffed with methamphetamine, another cash cow. The news agency also interviewed dozens of sources, including law enforcement, intelligence and government officials in Mexico and the United States, as well as local residents who’ve witnessed the changing of the guard.
The rapid ascendancy of Los Chapitos, many details of which are told here for the first time, shows how authorities may have underestimated the former party boys.
A 2019 showdown with Mexico’s Army in Culiacán, Sinaloa’s capital, already has cemented their place in narco lore. Soldiers captured Ovidio, the youngest of the four siblings, then quickly released him on the orders of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador after cartel foot soldiers fought troops in shootouts that killed 14 people, including several bystanders.
“This new generation is more violent,” said one retired Mexican police officer in Sinaloa. “Before, they would interrogate and then kill you. Now they kill and ask questions later.”
Within the cartel, the brothers have battled elders opposed to them assuming their father’s mantle, including El Chapo’s former right-hand man Dámaso López, according to U.S. and Mexican security sources.
But these young guns have also built a reputation as sharp businessmen. They’ve helped transform Mexico from a transit country for Chinese-produced fentanyl into a major production hub, half a dozen U.S. officials and DEA sources said. To do that, they said, Los Chapitos built a network of clandestine laboratories across Sinaloa and ramped up smuggling of precursor chemicals from China.
In a recent interview, Woody Harrelson said that the biggest drug cartels in the world get together and buy up all the media in the US.