This post is also available in Spanish.
The arrest of Joaquín Guzmán Loera – known as “El Chapo” or “Shorty” – ended a 13-year manhunt for the kingpin who reputedly heads the world’s largest drug cartel. Mexican marines captured Guzmán on 22 February in a bloodless early morning raid on an ocean-front condominium in his home state of Sinaloa.
The successful operation was a coup for Mexico’s intelligence services and U.S. counter-narcotics agents whose collaboration and persistence finally led to Guzmán’s capture. It may also provide a political boost for President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose approval ratings have tumbled amid concerns over the economy and continued insecurity. Less clear is whether the arrest will enhance the security of Mexican citizens who live in regions still plagued by high rates of murder, extortion and kidnapping. Crisis Group’s Mexico/Central America Project will analyse the government’s efforts to counter organised crime in vulnerable regions in upcoming reports on Ciudad Juárez and the state of Michoacán.
In this Q&A, Mary Speck (@speckmary), Crisis Group’s Mexico and Central America Project Director, discusses the significance of Guzmán’s arrest for the narcotics trade, for the state’s fight against organised crime and for Mexicans caught in drug-related violence that has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives over eight years. (See Crisis Group’s report, Peña Nieto’s Challenge: Criminal Cartels and Rule of Law in Mexico.)
Q: How did “El Chapo” Guzmán and the Sinaloa cartel become so powerful?
Guzmán was born in a region of Mexico where trafficking has long been a way of life. Nicknamed Mexico’s “golden triangle”, the mountainous area where the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa meet has been a source of narcotics for at least a century. Generations of small farmers in this remote, impoverished region have cultivated opium poppies and marijuana, selling their harvest to local bosses who would take charge of smuggling it across the U.S. border. Cocaine (grown in South America) was added to the mix beginning in the 1970s and 80s, when Colombian cartels began to seek alternative routes to the U.S. By the late 1990s, much of the cocaine heading to U.S. markets went via Central America and Mexico. The most enterprising (or ruthless) Mexican drug bosses became cartel kingpins in charge of distributing vast amounts of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and, eventually, methamphetamines to the U.S. and around the world.
Guzmán’s humble origins and business acumen are part of his legend: a farmer’s son mentored by local mafiosos rises to head a multibillion dollar drugs network said to have operatives not only in the Americas but in Europe, West Africa and South East Asia. His cartel was reportedly responsible for innovations such as transporting drugs under water on “narco-submarines” and via tunnels beneath the Mexican border. He even opened a cannery that shipped cocaine to Mexican-owned groceries in the U.S. disguised as canned chilli-peppers. Guillermo Valdés, a former director of Mexican intelligence, in an interview with El País called Guzmán a man “of great imagination and entrepreneurial creativity. He is a business genius”.
Unlike the rival Zetas cartel, which had a reputation for taking over drug routes by force, the Sinaloa cartel is reportedly a more decentralised network of criminal groups that generally prefer to operate under the radar, using a vast web of patronage to secure popular support and to corrupt elected officials and security forces. But Guzmán’s organisation does not shun violence: its battles to take over Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana, both key drug crossings and markets on the U.S. border, cost thousands of lives, especially between 2007 and 2011.
Q: How important is this arrest to the Mexican government? Has it dealt a decisive blow to the cartels?
Guzmán’s arrest has great symbolic importance: this is a man who not only ran a gigantic criminal enterprise but also achieved mythic status in Mexico, the subject of corridos (ballads) celebrating his power, wealth and defiance of authority. His escape from prison in 2001 (allegedly in a laundry cart and most likely after having paid massive bribes) only added to his aura of invincibility. By taking Guzmán – and by doing so in a carefully planned operation without bloodshed – the government has shown that Mexico has the will and ability to bring even the most powerful narco to justice. That is a huge blow against impunity.
Guzmán is not the only powerful trafficker to fall over the past year. In July and August 2013, troops took the top leaders of two rival cartels in Tamaulipas, near the U.S. border: Miguel Ángel Treviño, or Z-40, of the Zetas cartel, and Mario Armando Ramírez, of the Gulf cartel. In January of this year, federal police and soldiers captured leaders of two cartels that compete along the Pacific Coast: Rubén Oseguera González, son of and second in command to the head of Jalisco-Nueva Generación and Dionisio Loya Plancarte, one of the most-wanted leaders of the Knights Templar, a cult-like group of meth traffickers and extortionists in Michoacán.
Most of the recent high-level arrests have been carried out by military units, acting on information provided both by Mexico’s own intelligence services and by U.S. agents. Mexico remains overly reliant on the army and navy, which have been accused of serious human rights violations, to carry out operations that should be handled by civilian forces. The perception that police are incompetent and corrupt is still a major obstacle to security in Mexico.
Q: What will happen in Sinaloa and in other regions affected by drug-related violence?
In Guzmán’s home state, there is apprehension that a succession crisis within the cartel could provoke bloody infighting and/or territorial struggles with rival groups. The arrest was good for Peña Nieto, writes columnist Jorge Zepeda Patterson, but it may not be good for the inhabitants of the Pacific Coast states of Sinaloa, Sonora, Nayarit and Durango, which have suffered less violence than other drug transit areas. Analyst Alejandro Hope predicts that without Guzmán’s leadership the Sinaloa cartel will fragment into smaller, more diversified groups that “engage in all forms of rent extraction, from kidnapping to extortion to theft”. Such groups may not pose a threat to the Mexican state, but they can wreak havoc on local communities.
Some communities in Sinaloa have reportedly begun to form “self-defence” groups – local vigilante militias. That process might accelerate should rival cartels start to move in. The Peña Nieto government has sent troops to control the vigilante militias that, as International Crisis Group has reported, have become dangerously powerful in the southern Pacific Coast states of Michoacán and Guerrero, while offering to incorporate them into rural and municipal police. How many are willing to join legal entities and how they will be monitored remains unclear. Armed, poorly supervised local militias can end up selling “protection” through force and intimidation, thus perpetuating the extortion rackets they were created to eliminate. They are also vulnerable to penetration by rival cartels.
Q: Are arrests, such as that of Guzmán, sufficient to tackle the problem of organised drugs-related crime?
The arrest of leaders alone is unlikely to significantly weaken organised crime: other capos may emerge from within the organisation or other gangs move in to take over the former leader’s territory, sometimes resulting in even more violence. More important in the long run is developing police forces and a justice system capable of enforcing law and order in the neighbourhoods and towns where traffickers and other criminals have become de facto authorities. Shortly after taking office, Peña Nieto presented the outlines of a violence prevention strategy focused on high-crime communities, but critics contend the government is repackaging existing social programs rather than providing additional resources for new initiatives.
The reconfiguration of Mexican cartels following the arrest of top leaders makes it all the more urgent for President Peña Nieto to fulfil his promises to make crime prevention, including social programs and community policing, a central focus of his government’s security strategy. It is no accident that trafficking organisations often emerge in marginalised communities, with little access to education or government services – places like the birthplace of “El Chapo” in Sinaloa. The Mexican state needs to demonstrate that the drug lords largely responsible for the carnage of recent years will be punished. It also needs to fill the institutional vacuum that allows organised crime to thrive, convincing the residents of Sinaloa and other regions penetrated by criminal gangs that the state can provide security, education and other services designed to prevent crime and spur economic development.