In the months prior to Sinaloa cartel kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán's extradition in January, his impending absence from Mexico's cartel scene stirred fears that narco violence in the country could intensify with him gone.
Bloodshed in recent months seems to indicate his departure has been noted by rival groups.
Now one potential legal resolution to Guzmán's trial in the US is reminding some of other dark moments in Mexico's recent history of drug violence.
Guzmán, who could face life in prison, pleaded not guilty to the array of charges against him when he arrived in a US court in January. His next hearing is on May 5.
"Residents in Ciudad Juarez and other regions in Mexico are worried about the extradition of Chapo Guzmán, because what happens if there is a plea bargain?" Alfredo Corchado, a Dallas Morning News contributor and author, said earlier this month at a panel discussion about violence in Mexico at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC.
Corchado cited the case of Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the former leader of the powerful Gulf cartel, who was extradited to the US in 2007.
"As we saw with the case of Osiel Cardenas, once Osiel did the plea bargain, you saw massive homicides throughout the Tamaulipas, Coahuila, and other regions," Corchado added. "There were unintended consequences, so I think people are bracing for some tough months ahead, not just in Juarez, but in other parts of the country."
Cárdenas rose through the ranks of the Gulf cartel, which operated out of northeastern Mexico in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Under his guidance, the cartel moved thousands of pounds of cocaine and other drugs to the US.
In 2007, Cardenas was extradited to the US and, in 2010, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison and ordered to forfeit $50 million in early 2010. His sentence came he "'agreed to cooperate with the federal government'—a shocking admission for a Mexican drug lord," Michael Deibert wrote in his 2014 book, "In the Shadow of Saint Death."
As Gulf cartel chief, Cardenas had helped form what would become Los Zetas, a band of ex-Mexican special forces members who defected and others who became an armed enforcement wing for the Gulf cartel. In the mid- to late-2000s, divisions emerged between Gulf cartel leadership and their counterparts in Los Zetas — divisions inflamed by Cardenas' exit from Mexico.
"After Cardenas's extradition to the United States, the lines of command and control between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas become ever more blurred," Deibert writes.
Violence in parts of Mexico had already ticked up in 2008 and 2009, due to a constellation of factors like the deployment of the military to confront organized-crime groups and the intensification of cartel fighting over other pieces of territory in Mexico.
(Mexican government data)
In 2010, Cardenas' sentencing and the split between the Los Zetas and Gulf Cartel factions pushed violence up in northeast Mexico.
Homicides in the state of Tamaulipas, which borders Texas, more than doubled from 2009 to 2010.
Nuevo Leon, which borders Tamaulipas to the west, saw its homicides more than triple.
Homicides in other nearby states such as Coahuila, San Luis Potosi, and Veracruz also increased dramatically as well.
As with Cardenas' sentencing, Guzmán's extradition comes at a time of rising violence in Mexico.
Over the last two years, homicides have spiked. In 2015, homicides rose by 8.8% over the previous year. In 2016, they rose by 22%.
In January 2017, the number of homicide victims in Mexico was 38.5% higher than in the same month in 2016.
The present conflict roiling the Mexican narco underworld has driven in part by the rise of the Jalisco New Generation cartel.
While the Sinaloa cartel remains strong, "I think that Nemesio Oseguera, 'El Mencho,' from the New Generation cartel, will perceive [Guzmán's absence] as weakness," Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told Business Insider in the days after Guzmán's extradition.
"They may decide to go on an all-out offensive on the Sinaloa cartel now that Chapo is no longer in the country," Vigil said.
Recent violence in Mexico has also been driven by the apparent turmoil within the Sinaloa cartel, where Guzmán's sons and allies are competing with another faction for control of the sprawling smuggling empire Guzmán helped build.
Turmoil in Sinaloa state, the cartel's home turf, over the past year has suggested to some the Guzmán family structure is crumbling.
"Maybe we are for the first time seeing the true fall of Chapo Guzmán with all the consequences that this may bring," Anabel Hernandez, a reporter who has long covered Mexico's narco world, told Aristegui Noticias in October. "And this is not a fall brought about by the government but by his own family."
At the moment, on the ground in Sinaloa, the exact players and the balance of power in Sinaloa's internal dispute are hard to gauge, which makes it difficult to say which faction will prevail.
What is clear is that the bloodshed has intensified as they jockey for control.
The 116 homicides recorded in Sinaloa state, the cartel's home turf, in January 2017 were 50% more than during the same period last year, a state attorney general official told Reuters. Dozens of people are thought to have been slain in the first half of February.
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