MEXICO CITY (AFP) - A veteran drug baron has taken over Mexico's powerful Sinaloa cartel, apparently averting a war of succession after the capture of kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, US security officials told AFP.
Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada filled the void after Mexican marines backed by US intelligence arrested his longtime associate in February, the two officials said.
Zambada inherited the crown even though Guzman has sons in the business, but they lack enough experience and respect within the cartel to take charge, the sources said.
Guzman's arrest was a major blow to the cartel, and it will not be the same without him, but it seems to have avoided the sort of internal feuds that can plague gangs after a capo's downfall, they said.
The baton was passed, as widely expected, to the 66-year-old Zambada, an old-school drug lord who officials say worked hand in hand with Guzman in Mexico's biggest cartel, which smuggles drugs to the United States and around the globe.
"It's a natural progression based on the fact that Mayo was the second guy in charge. There's nobody bigger to replace the head of the cartel," a US law enforcement official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Guzman's sons, Ivan and Jesus Alfredo, will maintain roles within the cartel because Zambada needs them.
"Chapo will entrust his kids under Mayo's tutelage or supervision. They will align themselves with Mayo," the official said.
A US security official said Guzman's sons want a "50-50 partnership" with Zambada but Mayo "is in charge" and "probably won't go for that".
Ivan "El Chapito" Guzman, 33, and Jesus Alfredo Guzman, 27, have flashier lifestyles than Zambada, flaunting their wealth by driving Ferraris, officials said.
The US Treasury Department has placed the siblings on a financial sanctions list, identifying them as "key" cartel operatives.
Mexico's interior ministry declined to comment on the cartel's changes.
Mr Mike Vigil, a former senior Drug Enforcement Administration official, said Chapo's sons could not pose a challenge to Zambada.
"The bottom line is, where is the loyalty of the Sinaloa cartel? And the loyalty now is to Zambada," said Mr Vigil, who was briefed by Mexican and US officials about the handover.
"These guys (Sinaloa members) are in it for the money and they know the one who can provide the contacts and leadership is El Mayo," he added.
"He's been around the block, he's highly respected as a drug trafficker, and he's been the number two guy for a number of years."
In a 2010 magazine interview, Zambada declared his love for the Sinaloa hills, saying he worked in "agriculture and livestock, but if I can do business in the United States, I do it".
He told Proceso that his capture or killing would change nothing because once a drug lord is taken out, "his replacements are already there somewhere."
Zambada appeared on the magazine's cover with his arm around journalist Julio Scherer's shoulder, showing the stout drug lord with a thick black moustache and baseball cap.
Zambada, for whom the United States has offered a US$5 million (S$6.2 million) bounty, operates differently than Guzman, the US security official said.
He is "smarter, older and wiser" than Guzman, who has "more enemies than he can handle", the official said.
While Guzman's arrest could tempt rival gangs to make a play for Sinaloa's turf, Vigil said it remains Mexico's most powerful crime syndicate.
Sinaloa's sworn enemy, the Zetas cartel, has seen a leader killed and another captured while other gangs have been weakened by arrests or internal wars.
Zambada is more likely to seek compromises with competitors - unlike Guzman, whose war for control of Ciudad Juarez led to thousands of deaths in the city bordering Texas, the US security official said.
Like Guzman, Zambada's offspring joined the family business, but they are in legal trouble.
US prosecutors said last week his 39-year-old son Jesus Vicente Zambada had pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in Chicago, agreeing to cooperate with the authorities and admitting that his father has been a Sinaloa cartel leader since the 1970s.
Another son, Serafin, 23, was arrested trying to enter Arizona last year and pleaded not guilty to drug trafficking charges.
Experts say the cartel faces an uncertain future.
Mr Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence official, said it likely faces a gradual fragmentation like other cartels that have lost leaders in recent years.
"Chapo's arrest speeds up this transition from large groups to a more complicated scenario," said Mr Hope, a security analyst at the Mexican Competitiveness Institute.