A Hollow Victory In Mexico’s Drug War?

On Saturday, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, head of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, was captured after a 13-year manhunt. Daniel Hernández profiles the infamous kingpin:

[In 1993, Guzmán] was sentenced to 20 years in a maximum-security prison, but in 2001 he managed to escape, cartoonishly, in a laundry cart. Guzmán expanded his reach by trafficking marijuana, heroin, and cocaine into the United States, Europe, and Australia. He is said to exert control over most of western Mexico, parts of Guatemala, and trafficking ports in West Africa. While his nickname means “Shorty,” there’s nothing diminutive about El Chapo’s stature in the illicit drug world. Forbes has regularly named him in its lists of richest and “most powerful” people.

Juan Carlos Hidalgo asks the obvious question:

Without a doubt, Guzmán’s capture is a huge success for [Mexican president] Enrique Peña Nieto. In the last seven months, the leaders of Mexico’s top three drug cartels (Zetas, Gulf and Sinaloa) were arrested without a single shot being fired. So, are we on the verge of wining the war on drugs? That all depends on what the ultimate goal is.

Is it taking down drug kingpins or stopping the flow of drugs into the United States? If it’s the latter, the war is far from over. A report from the Office of Intelligence and Operations Coordination of the U.S. Custom and Border Protection agency looked at drug seizure data from January 2009 to January 2010 and matched it with the arrests or deaths of drug operatives (11 druglords in total). It found that “there is no perceptible pattern that correlates either a decrease or increase in drug seizures due to the removal of key DTO [drug trafficking organization] personnel.”

Keegan Hamilton warns that Guzmán’s arrest might actually make matters worse:

Each time a kingpin falls, bloody internecine conflict inevitably follows. When the Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cárdenas Guillén ended up in Colorado’s infamous “supermax” federal penitentiary after his arrest in 2003 (a fate that may await El Chapo—federal prosecutors have already announced that they will seek his extradition), it paved the way for the Los Zetas cartel to commence its reign of terror across Mexico. The current situation in the Mexican state of Michoacán—where peasants have formed heavily armed militias to fight back against corrupt police and extortionist gangs—stems from the fragmentation of the La Familia cartel after the rumored death of its leader, Nazario “El Chayo” Moreno.

Even with El Chapo behind bars, the Sinaloa Cartel remains the most powerful drug-trafficking organization in Mexico, if not the world. Its operatives have been arrested in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and, of course, the United States. The cartel may have lost its CEO, but its board of directors remains intact.

Mark Guarino highlights Sinaloa’s US distribution operation, based out of Chicago:

The city, centrally located, has become a hub for distributing drugs to other cities across the country, and its sizable Mexican population (both legal and illegal) provides the cartel with ready access to foot soldiers. For those reasons, the US Attorney’s Office in Chicago indicted Guzman in absentia in August 2009 for conspiring to transport drugs across international borders, and the US has prosecuted key figures in the cartel’s US operations here. The Chicago Crime Commission named Guzman public enemy No. 1, a designation previously given to a crime boss from another era, Al Capone.

Keating adds that Mexico’s much-touted drop in violence under Peña Nieto’s leadership is misleading:

According to the government’s statistics, the 18 percent drop in murders in 2013 was accompanied by a 35 percent increase in kidnapping. And Molly Molloy, a research librarian and a specialist on Latin America and the U.S.-Mexico border at the New Mexico State University Library, argues that the declining murder rate is the result of the country’s statistical agencies classifying fewer killings as “intentional homicides,” coupled with the fact that “the epicenters of extreme violence have dispersed around the country, making it more difficult to know how many people are dying.” She argues that there’s no evidence to suggest the total number of murders has declined at all, though different regions have seen changes in the level of violence.