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Former DEA Agent: Sinaloa Cartel Likely To Remain Strong Without 'El Chapo'


Today, one of the most notorious drug lords in the world sits in maximum security at Manhattan's Metropolitan Correctional Center. Joaquin Guzman, better known as El Chapo, was extradited to the U.S. just last week. This was after multiple prison escapes and recaptures in Mexico. El Chapo led the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico's most successful and perhaps most violent drug empire. For a look at the state of the cartel in El Chapo's absence we're joined now by Mike Vigil, who spent more than 30 years as a DEA agent. Hi there.

MIKE VIGIL: Hi there. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Good. So when El Chapo was imprisoned, how did that affect the Sinaloa cartel?

VIGIL: It really didn't have an impact because the Sinaloa Cartel is very different than most cartels that operate in Mexico. Most cartels have a vertical structure, but the Sinaloa Cartel functions like a global corporation. It has a horizontal structure where they have subsidiaries throughout many parts of the world. And these subsidiaries are semi-autonomous. In other words, they have the ability to make decisions. And as a result of that, it's very difficult to dismantle a cartel like the Sinaloa Cartel. Secondly, they have great leadership. There's an individual by the name of Ismael El Mayo Zambada who has been running the Sinaloa Cartel during Chapo's incarceration.

SHAPIRO: I understand he's very different from El Chapo. Tell us what he's like.

VIGIL: He's an old-time capo. He's been around the drug world for many years. And then he is also very respected by the rank-and-file of the Sinaloa Cartel. He has never seen the inside of a prison cell simply because unlike Chapo, he has remained in the mountainous terrain of his home state of Sinaloa.

SHAPIRO: If it was so easy to replace Chapo, it sounds like there wasn't much of a turf war, other cartels trying to muscle in on Sinaloa's turf.

VIGIL: Well, there have been a lot of cartels that have been trying to take territory away from the Sinaloa Cartel. And we're talking about the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, the Zetas, the Tijuana Cartel, the Juarez Cartel. But Sinaloa continues to remain the primary and the strongest cartel in Mexico.

SHAPIRO: Has Chapo's extradition to the U.S. had any effect at all?

VIGIL: No impact. It's really a great moral victory, but it's not going to have any impact. President Felipe Calderon went after the leadership and he called it the kingpin strategy. And that really hasn't worked because he's taken down a lot of leaders, but these cartels fragment and you get more violence. And that is basically what's taking place in Mexico now.

SHAPIRO: When White House spokesman Sean Spicer today announced the start of Donald Trump's border wall expansion, he argued that it will help slow down the drug trade. Do you think that's true?

VIGIL: No. That's complete nonsense. They can circumvent that wall using medieval technology, you know, catapults. You know, they have these aircraft that look like flying lawnmowers. They call them ultralights. They can carry maybe 300 pounds of marijuana or cocaine or methamphetamine. And then through the use of tunnels - they can easily build a very nice tunnel for a million dollars, and the first load that they run through there will pay for that tunnel.

SHAPIRO: That's Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, also author of the novel "Metal Coffins: The Blood Alliance Cartel." Thanks for joining us.

VIGIL: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.