MEXICO CITY — One of the world's most powerful drug cartels took a major hit when soldiers killed a top kingpin in a gunbattle, and his death will likely will mean more violence as factions fight for the cocaine and methamphetamine empire that he left behind.
The death of Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel during an army operation also challenges a long-held notion that Mexican government officials at the highest levels have been helping the Sinaloa cartel win the drug war. Coronel was the No. 3 of the gang led by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mexico's most-wanted drug lord.
The attack was an exclusively Mexican operation, unlike other recent raids targeting top drug lords that have relied on U.S. intelligence, Mexican and U.S. officials said Friday. After month of intelligence work, the Mexican army zeroed in on Coronel at his mansion Thursday in a ritzy suburb of Guadalajara.
"I absolutely believe that this will have an impact on ... the Sinaloa federation's capability to move their drugs, at least in the short term," said Dave Gaddis, deputy chief of operations that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "They will require time to rebuild."
Continuing the raids Friday, soldiers killed Coronel's nephew, Mario Carrasco Coronel, in a shootout in the suburb of Zapopan.
The Defense Department said in a statement that Carrasco Coronel was one of his uncle's possible successors. He opened fire on soldiers, wounding one, before he was killed, the department said.
The elder Coronel, who had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head, is considered one of the founders of Mexico's methamphetamine trade, building clandestine laboratories in the country and smuggling the drug into the United States. He controlled meth and cocaine trafficking routes that extended from Mexico's Pacific coast and inland up to Arizona.
Gaddis said a battle over who will control those routes next is "a distinct possibility." Sinaloa cartels rivals are already thought to be encroaching into some of the territory that Coronel dominated, including the Pacific port of Manzanillo that has been a major entry point for meth precursor chemicals, he said.
"It would be reasonable to suspect that either a new trafficking group or components of the current Sinaloa drug trafficking organization would try to take over the area that he once controlled," Gaddis said in an interview with The Associated Press. "And that may spawn some resistance from people have worked for him."
And experts said Coronel's death would not mean the imminent destruction of the Sinaloa cartel, which some U.S. law enforcement officials believe has become the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world.
Mexican police once captured "El Chapo" Guzman himself, only to see him escape from a high security prison in a laundry truck. He has since become one of the world's richest men and Forbes magazine even listed him as one of the "World Most Powerful People." U.S. law enforcement officials say he has won control over trafficking routes in Ciudad Juarez after a bloody fight with the Juarez cartel in the border city.
Most recently, the Sinaloa cartel co-opted several other cartels into an alliance to destroy the Zetas gang. That could help Sinaloa keep control of the southern Pacific trafficking routes that Coronel ruled, said George Grayson, an expert on Mexico's drug war at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. One of Sinaloa's new allies – La Familia – has a growing presence in the so-called Pacific route, he said.
"It's a blow but it's not a knock out punch," Grayson said.
President Felipe Calderon's government has brought down several kingpins since he deployed thousands of troops in 2006 to fight traffickers at their strongholds.
Those victories have nearly always unleashed waves of violence that have terrified ordinary citizens and sapped popular support for Calderon's drug war, an effort supported by millions of dollars in U.S. aid for equipment and training. Nearly 25,000 people have been killed by drug violence during Calderon's government.
Cartels have fought back with brash attacks against security forces and even their families. In December, hit men gunned down the mother aunt and siblings of a marine killed in a raid that took out kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva. And Leyva's death opened a new front in the drug war, turning the picturesque central town of Cuernavaca into a bloody battleground for control over his cartel.
This time, the army was careful not to reveal the name of the only soldier killed in the raid on Coronel's home.
The government was subdued in victory, making no comment at all beyond the initial announcement that the capo was dead. Defense Department officials said the government did not want to compromise the safety of its security forces or compromise its intelligence strategies by discussing the attack.
Calderon – who at the time of the operation had been attending a public event just miles away in the same Guadalajara suburb – made no public appearances Friday. This, even though Coronel's downfall gives him ammunition against those who have long alleged that the Sinaloa cartel is protected by top government officials.
Coronel's death "does lay that perception to rest," Grayson said.
The insinuations have come from Mexican analysts, politicians from Calderon's own National Action Party and countless banners put up by rival gangs. Scandals ensnaring top officials have fueled the suspicions.
In May, the newspaper Reforma reported that secret police documents containing the names and contact numbers of federal officers were found in the car of an associated of "El Chapo" Guzman. The government never confirmed or denied the report. Two years ago, Mexico's former anti-drug czar and several other high-ranking officials were arrested for allegedly protecting the Beltran Leyva gang, which as the time was allied with the Sinaloa cartel.
The suspicions have increasingly provoked violence against government security forces, including a July 15 car bomb that killed a federal police officer and two other people in Ciudad Juarez. The Juarez cartel claimed responsibility for the bomb and threatened more attacks against unless federal police who protect the Sinaloa cartel are arrested.
Washington officials have always dismissed insinuations that Calderon favors any cartel.
"The government of Mexico has given full attention to combatting the drug trafficking threat from the Gulf cartel, the Beltran Leyva organization, the Sinaloa or Pacific organization, La Familia Michoacana all equally," Gaddis said.
And Calderon has always insisted that he is aggressively trying to root out corrupt officials who protect any criminals. Two months ago, Mexican marines arrested the captain of Manzanillo – the port where Coronel brought in many of his meth shipments – on charged of drug trafficking ties.
Mexico's military made clear they had long been learning details that proved crucial to bringing Coronel down, including his habit of traveling with only one bodyguard, Iran Francisco Quinonez, who was captured in the raid.
Coronel and Quinonez were the only ones in the house when soldiers stormed in, backed by helicopters hovering overhead. The army said Coronel grabbed a gun and opened fire, provoking a shootout in which he and the soldier were killed.
Associated Press writer Alicia A. Caldwell contributed to this report from Los Angeles.