Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel Could Fragment If Boss 'El Chapo' Is Confirmed Dead In Guatemala

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By Ryan Villarreal | February 23, 2013 4:04 AM EST

Guatemalan authorities are investigating reports that Mexico’s most notorious drug lord and head of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, may have been killed in a firefight with rival criminals.

Local residents in a rural area of Guatemala’s Peten province near the Mexican border reported the alleged gun-battle Thursday and that one of the dead men bore a resemblance to Guzman.

Guatemala’s Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla said that security forces were on the ground searching for the site of the reported violence, but that no bodies have been found yet, nor has it been confirmed whether a gunfight even took place, the Associated Press reported.

This information contradicts an earlier statement from government spokesperson Francisco Cuevas, who had initially said that at least two men were found dead in the region.

"We have to wait for all the technical information in order to determine if, in fact, one of the dead is of Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman," Cuevas told Guatemalan television media.

Cuevas later backtracked his statements and said that the reports of bodies being found were unconfirmed.

The Sinaloa Cartel is widely considered Mexico’s -- and arguably the world’s -- most powerful drug trafficking organization.

“The cartel’s tentacles stretch from New York City to Buenos Aires and almost every major city in between,” reads a profile of the syndicate on Latin American analysis group InSight Crime’s website.

“It has successfully penetrated government and security forces wherever it operates,” the profile continues. “It often opts for the bribe over the bullet and alliances over fighting, but it is not above organizing its forces to overrun areas that it wants to control by force.”

Based in the Pacific Mexican state of Sinaloa, the cartel has expanded its territory throughout much of western Mexico from Oaxaca state in the south all the way up to the southwestern border of the United States.

Guzman rose to prominence in 2003 following the arrest of rival drug boss, Osiel Cárdenas Guillén of the Gulf cartel.

“If El Chapo was indeed captured or killed in just the third month of Peña Nieto's administration, it would boost the president's claim that he is ushering in a new era in crime policy, and [it] could reflect badly on [former President Felipe] Calderón,” wrote InSight Crime analyst Hannah Stone, adding that it would rehabilitate the image of Peña Nieto's PRI party, which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000 and was widely perceived as rampantly corrupt and complicit in cartel activities.

The immediate fallout from the hypothetical death of Guzman would be an internal battle for leadership, which could result in the fracturing of the Sinaloa Cartel, according to Stone.

“If the Sinaloa federation dissolved, and the groups that worked under the Sinaloa umbrella opted to start up independent operations, this would simply be an acceleration of the Mexican underworld’s current trend towards decentralization and fragmentation, with the break-up of the old, large cartels and rise of increasingly powerful but localized street gangs,” Stone wrote.

InSight Crime remains skeptical on reports of Guzman’s demise, pointing out that it would be unlikely for the cartel boss to travel to the Peten region of Guatemala where he would have little protection.

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