The capture of the world’s most wanted drug lord less than six months since his cinematic tunnel escape from a Mexican prison will likely do little to stem the flow of drugs across the border into the United States. Experts say it may actually contribute to violence and instability in Mexico’s lucrative drug-producing market.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced his administration’s second arrest of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán triumphantly on Friday. As the news of the capture spread, a gathering of Mexican ambassadors and consular officials broke into a spontaneous rendition of Mexico’s national anthem in celebration. US Attorney General Loretta Lynch called the arrest “a victory” for citizens on both sides of the border.
Yet while Mexico’s political elite gloated — and his lawyers prepared a vigorous court battle against possible extradition — leading analysts and critics of the US-backed drug war in Mexico noted that Guzmán’s capture means little to the actual street-level drug market in America or to violence in Mexico.
Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel is believed to be responsible for delivering the vast majority of narcotics — mostly marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine — that are used in the United States, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
‘He will be too dangerous in a trial.’
At one point, the success of the Sinaloa drug empire propelled Guzmán into the Forbes list of the world’s richest and most powerful people. Meanwhile, homicides spiked in Chapo’s home state of Sinaloa between 2009 and 2014, rising to a peak of 2,423 in 2010, as different factions from the cartel fought for regional control.
“It will do absolutely nothing,” said Russell Jones, a retired anti-narcotics detective who worked for the DEA in the 1980s and is a member of LEAP, or Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
“You look at the prior drug traffickers, the cartel leaders, Manuel Noriega, Pablo Escobar — I could go on and on — ‘Freeway’ Ricky Ross, and every time we arrest one, it does absolutely nothing to the flow of drugs,” said Jones.
US authorities seem to already know that. In an internal document, the US Customs and Border Protection agency found in 2011 that there is “no perceptible pattern” to show that the capture or killing of a top Mexican drug lord increases or decreases drug seizures at the US-Mexico border. Such seizures are the primary indicator used to predict drug production and its profits.
Guzmán’s arrest in the Pacific city of Los Mochis comes amid a rise in recent years in heroin production in Mexico, particularly in regions of the country considered under the Sinaloa cartel’s control or influence. More Mexican-made heroin is making its way to US streets, fuelling an ongoing opiate abuse crisis.
Measuring the volume and profits linked to illegal narcotics is difficult. Most figures on drug production are based on projections generated by decommissioned drug loads, which authorities believe represent only a fraction of what actually makes it across the border from Mexico to the US.
But experts consulted on Friday agreed Sinaloa cartel’s trafficking apparatus appeared not to be affected by Guzmán’s previous capture in February 2014, or by his notorious July 2015 escape from the Altiplano federal prison near Mexico City.
While Chapo was in prison in Mexico between 2014 and 2015, little apparently changed in the Sinaloa organization.
Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, another top Sinaloa cartel leader, remains at large. Rafael Caro Quintero, one of the godfathers of Mexico’s drug business who was released by a judge in the state of Jalisco in 2013 after more than two decades behind bars, was said to be back in the business. Caro Quintero, 63, is now considered a fugitive by the US and Mexico.
“The Pacific organization [Sinaloa cartel] didn’t dismember itself,” said Guillermo Valdés, the chief of Mexico’s intelligence agency under former President Felipe Calderón, who made battling the cartels his top priority during his six-year term that ended in 2012. “It has a more collective direction, and historically it has demonstrated that it’s very stable.”
All that landscape could change if Guzmán is sent to the US to face drug charges.
The almost cartoonish escape through a tunnel burrowed to his shower stall in Mexico would be much more difficult to pull off in a US facility. Guzmán could also offer information on rivals or corrupt government agents in both countries in exchange for some form of leniency.
‘That little neighborhood phenomenon is happening on a global scale.’
The US government formally requested Guzman’s extradition in June 2015, just before his tunnel escape. Wary DEA officials had already warned Mexico that Guzmán could plot a prison break, but authorities in Peña Nieto’s government appeared to have ignored the possibility.
Then in October 2015, with Guzmán at large for three months, a Mexican judge ruled in favor of a request by Chapo’s lawyers to prevent a possible extradition if he were re-captured. The move hints at a legal tussle in the coming days through Mexico’s labyrinthine justice system.
A former Guzmán ally who later turned into a bitter enemy, US citizen Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal, spent five years in Mexican custody before he was sent home last September to face charges in US federal court in Atlanta. Last week La Barbie changed his plea on drug charges to “guilty” from a previous not-guilty plea, suggesting a deal had been made in exchange for leniency from the US authorities.
One prominent former law enforcement officer who is against the war on drugs expressed skepticism that Chapo would be extradited swiftly, if at all, due to the potential information he could disclose on corruption in anti-drug agencies.
“He will be too dangerous in a trial,” said Stephen Downing, a LEAP board member. “As he moves in his defense, and the dealmaking starts, I think he would ‘roll over’ on a lot of American and Mexican officials. … I think he’s a danger to a lot of people in the American Drug Enforcement Administration.”
Downing is a retired deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department who launched and headed the LAPD’s anti-drug efforts in the 1970s.
“I started the drug enforcement for LAPD when Nixon announced the war on drugs, organized all the divisional units, set up the intelligence systems and coordination with the feds,” Downing said.
The former official added that his experience taught him that arrests do little to address the violence and death associated with drug trafficking.
“If there’s a raid in South Central Los Angeles and you pick up 15 or 20 street corner drug dealers, the immediate aftermath is a spike in violence and a spike in overdose deaths,” he added. “That little neighborhood phenomenon is happening on a global scale.”