Sunday, December 17, 2023

My Threatcon Column: Mexico Captures Notorious Drug Cartel Lead Sicario

Counterterrorism magazine’s website published my Threatcon column.

You can read the column via the below link or the below text:

 IACSP - ThreatCon Articles

Back on November 23rd, the Justice Department issued a statement from U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on the arrest of Néstor Isidro Pérez Salas, also known as “El Nini,” by Mexican authorities:

“Yesterday, Mexican authorities arrested Néstor Isidro Pérez Salas, also known as ‘El Nini,’ who we allege is one of the Sinaloa Cartel’s lead “sicarios,” or assassins.

“Until his apprehension, El Nini led security operations for the Chapitos and we allege that he and his security forces murdered, tortured, and kidnapped rivals, witnesses, and others who opposed the Chapitos. Shortly after the apprehension of El Nini, I spoke with Mexican Attorney General Gertz to thank him for the extraordinary efforts of the Mexican authorities who made the arrest, and to whom we are all grateful for their courage,” Garland stated. “We are now seeking El Nini’s swift extradition from Mexico to face justice here in the United States.”

Garland also made note of a meeting in October in Mexico City, in which he thanked the Mexican government and law enforcement counterparts for the extradition of Ovidio Guzman Lopez, a leader of the Sinaloa Cartel and one of more than a dozen cartel leaders the U.S. had indicted who have been extradited to the United States. Previously, the U.S. announced charges against 23 leaders, members, and associates of the Sinaloa Cartel. The charges reflect the aggressive approach the U.S. Justice Department was taking to disrupt and dismantle the Sinaloa Cartel, an organization responsible for operating one of the deadliest and most prolific drug trafficking operations in the world.

“Among those charged were the cartel’s drug traffickers, their money launderers, their manufacturers, their chemical suppliers, and their leaders — as well as their security forces, which engage in horrific and brutal violence,” Garland said. “The Justice Department is grateful to our Mexican counterparts for their work in that effort, and we remain committed to doing everything in our power to dismantle the dangerous drug trafficking cartels that are responsible for death and devastation in both the United States and Mexico.”

President Joe Biden also weighed in on the arrest of Salas on November 23rd. 

“On November 22, Mexican security forces captured Néstor Isidro Pérez Salas, the notorious head of security for the Chapitos wing of the Sinaloa Cartel. For nearly three years, El Nini has been one of Mexico’s and the United States’ most wanted criminals, indicted by the United States for his roles in perpetrating violence and illicit fentanyl trafficking into the United States, and both our countries are safer with him behind bars and facing justice for his crimes. His arrest also follows Mexico’s arrest and extradition to the United States of another Chapitos leader, Ovidio Guzmán López, earlier this year.”

President Biden said that the arrests were testament to the commitment between the United States and Mexico to secure communities against violence, counter the cartels, and end the scourge of illicit fentanyl that is hurting so many families.

“We will continue working as strong partners to do everything possible to hold criminals accountable for jeopardizing public health and safety in our two countries. As I told President Andrés Manuel López Obrador when we met in San Francisco on November 17, nothing is beyond our reach when Mexico and the United States stand together. I want to thank President López Obrador and the Mexican Army and special forces for effectively capturing El Nini and express our appreciation for the brave men and women of Mexican security forces who undertook this successful operation to apprehend him.” 

According to the U.S. State Department, Nestor Isidro Perez Salas is one of the leaders in the Chapitos’ security apparatus.  Perez Salas works directly for Ivan Archivaldo Guzmán Salazar’s principal deputy, Oscar Noe Medina Gonzalez, and holds responsibility within the Chapitos’ security apparatus for Sinaloa Cartel security in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.  Perez Salas is also one of the leaders and commanders of the “Ninis,” a particularly violent group of security personnel for the Chapitos.

In April of 2023, a federal grand jury sitting in the Southern District of New York returned an indictment against Perez Salas and others charging them with engaging in a Continuing Criminal Enterprise, Fentanyl Importation Conspiracy, Fentanyl Trafficking Conspiracy, Possession of Machineguns & Destructive Devices, Conspiracy to Possess Machineguns & Destructive Devices, and Money Laundering Conspiracy.

“Today, the Justice Department is announcing significant enforcement actions against the largest, most violent, and most prolific fentanyl trafficking operation in the world – run by the Sinaloa Cartel, and fueled by Chinese precursor chemical and pharmaceutical companies,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in April. “Families and communities across our country are being devastated by the fentanyl epidemic. Today’s actions demonstrate the comprehensive approach the Justice Department is taking to disrupt fentanyl trafficking and save American lives.”

Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco added, “The fentanyl crisis in America – fueled in large part by the Sinaloa cartel – threatens our public health, our public safety, and our national security. Today’s indictments target every element of the Sinaloa Cartel's trafficking network and reflect the Justice Department's commitment to attacking every aspect of this threat: from the chemical companies in China that spawn fentanyl precursors, to the illicit labs that produce the poison, to the networks and money launderers and murderers that facilitate its distribution. Just as we have gone on offense against terrorists and cyber criminals around the globe, the Department is now waging a relentless campaign to disrupt the production and trafficking of fentanyl – before it can reach its victims.”

The DEA Administrator Anne Milgram also noted, “Today’s indictments send a clear message to the Chapitos, the Sinaloa Cartel, and criminal drug networks around the world that the DEA will stop at nothing to protect the national security of the United States and the safety and health of the American people. The Chapitos pioneered the manufacture and trafficking of fentanyl – the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced – flooded it into the United States for the past eight years and killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. Over the last year and a half, the DEA proactively infiltrated the Sinaloa Cartel and the Chapitos network, obtained unprecedented access to the organization’s highest levels, and followed them across the world. I am grateful to the men and women of the DEA for their exceptional work on this case, which is the beginning of our work as ‘One DEA’ to dismantle every part of the criminal cartels that are killing Americans at record rates.”

“Far too many Americans have become victims in the national fentanyl crisis. These cartels have shown us they will stop at nothing to manufacture, traffic, and push these dangerous drugs to every corner of our country,” added FBI Director Christopher Wray. “Today’s indictments show that the FBI and our law enforcement partners will never tire in our pursuit not only to shut down their criminal enterprises, but also to go after individuals in their network. I want to thank the FBI team who continue to work on these cases everyday as we join with our law enforcement partners to tackle this national epidemic.”

According to the U.S. Justice Department, the Sinaloa Cartel is one of the most powerful drug cartels in the world and is largely responsible for the manufacturing and importing of fentanyl for distribution in the United States. Fentanyl is a dangerous synthetic opioid that is more than 50 times more potent than heroin. Fentanyl is now the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 49, and it has fueled the opioid epidemic that has been ravaging families and communities across the United States for approximately the past eight years. Between 2019 and 2021, fatal overdoses increased by approximately 94%, with an estimated 196 Americans dying each day from fentanyl.

The Sinaloa Cartel operated as an affiliation of drug traffickers and money launderers who obtain precursor chemicals – largely from China – for the manufacture of synthetic drugs, manufacture drugs in Mexico, move those drugs into the United States, and collect, launder, and transfer the proceeds of drug trafficking. Once led by Joaquin Guzman Loera, aka El Chapo, and Ismael Zambada Garcia, aka El Mayo, the Sinaloa Cartel’s members and associates – allegedly including the sons of Guzman Loera, collectively known as the Chapitos – smuggled significant quantities of drugs through Mexico and into the United States. The Chapitos are Ivan Guzman Salazar, 40, Alfredo Guzman Salazar, 37, Joaquin Guzman Lopez, 36, and Ovidio Guzman Lopez, 33.

Following Guzman Loera’s arrest in January 2016 and extradition to the United States in January 2017, the Chapitos allegedly assumed their father’s former role as leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel, along with Zambada Garcia and Damaso Lopez Nunez, aka Licenciado. The Chapitos subsequently amassed greater control over the Sinaloa Cartel by allegedly threatening and causing violence against Lopez Nunez, his family, and his associates and, as a result, became principal leaders and drug traffickers within the Sinaloa Cartel.

Perez Salas was considered such a threat to the U.S that the State Department offered a reward of up to $3 million for information leading to his arrest and/or conviction.

News reports have suggested that the Mexican Army's capture of Perez Sakas was personal. The Mexicans noted that Perez Salas was responsible for the attack on an unguarded apartment complex that houses soldiers’ families in 2019.

In order to pressure the army to release Ovidio Guzman, one of the sons of drug lord "El Chapo" Guzman, cartel gunmen surrounded the army families' housing complex in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa, and fired shots at it repeatedly. The cartel gunman later took hostages.

The army was shocked at the attack, as the soldiers relied on an unwritten rule that soldiers' wives and children were not to be targeted by the drug cartels. Afterwards, the Mexican military pursued Perez Salas with a vengeance. 

The capture of Nestor Isidro Perez Salas is a serious blow to the cartel. 


Paul Davis’ Threatcon column covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

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