El Chapo's billion-dollar Sinaloa cartel carries on without him

Infamous drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, more commonly known as El Chapo – the leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel – is set to go on trial in New York on Tuesday, but his absence hasn’t stopped business at his criminal organization.

Continue Reading Below

“Though El Chapo has been the leader and architect, ‘cutting off the head of the snake’ does not always kill the snake,” Michael Balboni, President and Managing Director of RedLand Strategies and former New York State Homeland Security Advisor, told FOX Business.

In fact, owing to a decentralized organizational structure, the Sinaloa Cartel has been able to survive Guzmán’s absence in the past.

In an interview with actor Sean Penn for Rolling Stone in 2016, Guzmán said his business would “never end” and that it did not decline while he was incarcerated. He also said trafficking does not “depend on just one person,” but rather “it depends on a lot of people.”

Just last month, law enforcement officials seized about $10 million worth of drugs and weapons in California believed to be connected to the cartel.

In August, authorities seized 850 pounds of methamphetamine, about a ton of cocaine, 93 pounds of heroin, nearly 50 pounds of marijuana and $1.42 million in Los Angeles. More than 20 people were arrested.

Last week, officials seized $5 billion worth of methamphetamine in Mexico – also believed to belong to the criminal organization.

The DEA estimates that the Sinaloa criminal enterprise controlled as much as 60 percent of Mexico’s drug trade by 2012, with annual earnings reaching $3 billion. In addition to peddling drugs, the group is known for violence and murders.

Guzmán, who is 59 years old, became Mexico’s premier drug lord in the 1990s and he has been ranked among the most powerful people in the world by Forbes on multiple occasions. He raked in $14 billion through illegal activities, which included funneling massive amounts of drugs – like cocaine and methamphetamine – into the U.S.

The Sinaloa cartel rose to power by occupying a vacuum left in the U.S. by Colombian traffickers, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), after which Guzmán was able to “increase his profits to staggering levels.” By the time of his second capture in 2014, he “had control of most of the western hemisphere’s cocaine transportation and distribution network from South America to as far north as Canada,” according to court documents.

Guzmán was captured in Guatemala in 1993 – and escaped from a maximum security prison in Mexico in 2001, allegedly in a covered laundry cart. He was again arrested in 2014 and escaped again about a year later through an underground tunnel.

After his most recent detainment, Guzmán was extradited to the U.S. in 2017.

As the trial begins on Tuesday, Balboni said concerns over the safety of witnesses and prosecutors is “legitimate” in such a highly-publicized case.

The indictment spans 25 years of Guzmán’s criminal conduct