In 2005, the notorious leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, swept into a restaurant in the US-Mexico border town of Nuevo Laredo with a slew of armed henchmen. They locked the doors of the restaurant so no one could enter or exit. The henchmen warned the 40 or so diners against using their cellphones, or leaving before Chapo finished his dinner. When the drug lord was done eating, he picked up everyone’s tab and left without further incident. But the message was clear: as an FBI agent later told the Houston Chronicle, "He was there to prove a point ... to let people know he's in town," and that he was in control of a strategically important drug-trafficking territory.
These are not the actions of a man who fears law enforcement.
So when Mexican commandos raided the Avenida del Mar condo tower in the seaside resort community of Mazatlan to take Chapo into custody last week, it was surprising to learn that this same brazen criminal — the world’s most wanted drug lord, allegedly worth $1 billion and responsible for as many as 80,000 deaths worldwide — had been so easily apprehended.
"We're all surprised that Chapo has been apprehended."
Something had certainly changed. Julie Murphy Erfani, an expert on the US–Mexico drug war at Arizona State University, says that much is true. She says the Mexican government is deeply connected to the drug trade. "There are people at every level of the [Mexican] federal government — and this includes police forces at every level — that have been bribed by drug traffickers if not involved in facilitating the trafficking itself." She cites an incisive NPR investigation concluding that Mexican officials failed to crack down on Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel, allowing Chapo and most of his closest associates to remain free and to expand their drug empire.
"The Mexican government has taken down kingpins from all the other major drug organizations in the country except the Sinaloa," she continued. "That's why we're all so surprised that Chapo has been apprehended."
So why was Chapo targeted at all, let alone now?
Empire strikes back
El Chapo is a notorious drug lord, in the vein of the fictional Tony "Scarface" Montana, or the very real Pablo Escobar. Chapo was born into a poor family in a remote area of the Sierra Madre Occidental, according to Sylvia Longmire’s book, Cartel, which offers a history of Mexico's drug war. Many in his family made their living as workers cultivating poppy fields, but Chapo wanted more. He had an uncle who was a drug trafficker, so he left his hometown and pursued that path instead.
He started as a smuggler, moving huge shipments across the US–Mexico border, mostly by plane, in the late '70s and early '80s. He quickly earned a reputation as someone willing to take major risks and unwilling to accept any action bordering on disrespect; Malcolm Beith’s book, The Last Narco, which is about the hunt for Chapo, describes him as the kind of man who would kill an associate for delivering a drug shipment later than scheduled. Chapo’s ruthlessness earned him respect among cartel leaders, and he took advantage of infighting within cartels — and US attempts to slow shipments through the Caribbean — to smuggle increasing huge amounts of drugs through Mexico. Doing so, he gained incredible power and wealth.
But a protracted cartel battle and the accidental assassination of Guadalajara’s Catholic Archbishop in 1993 put him in the sights of law enforcement. Mexico’s president condemned the killing. After Chapo’s photo was leaked to the Mexican press, he fled for Guatemala, bribing an official there to look the other way. Unfortunately for Chapo, that official had been coordinating with Mexican authorities. Chapo was arrested and eventually sentenced to 20 years in a maximum security prison.
"the biggest arrest in a generation."
And that’s where he remained until January 19th, 2001, when he either snuck out of prison in a laundry basket or bribed prison officials to set him free. Whatever the case, Chapo has been on the lam but very active since then. He’s attracted the attention of the US Department of State for organizing multi-ton shipments of cocaine from Colombia's coca fields through a vast network of conspirators in the Sinaloa cartel and then getting them into the United States.
Under Chapo, the Sinaloa operation goes far beyond just cocaine. It’s considered to be the largest importer of marijuana into the US, and a federal indictment in Illinois’ Northern District — where a large percentage of Chapo’s illicit products are imported and sold on the black market — alleges heroin as well. According to that indictment — one of seven major indictments in federal districts across the US — Chapo and his associates earned profits "that include, but are not limited to" nearly $1 billion in the Chicagoland area alone, between 2005 and 2008. Chapo’s empire, which includes drug strongholds in Los Angeles, Oakland, Miami, New York, Phoenix, and elsewhere, goes way beyond that; the billion it earned in greater Chicago is just a tiny percentage.
Which is why the New York Times called Chapo’s apprehension "the biggest arrest in a generation."
A zero-sum game
Chapo’s apprehension last Saturday was credited to Mexican marines, but the US likely played a huge role — not only in providing drones and phone taps as a way to verify Chapo’s location over the past two months or so, but also in forcing Mexico’s hand to arrest perhaps its most notorious drug kingpin.
Bruce Bagley, the Miami University drug trafficking scholar, says there are two main theories about why Chapo was arrested — and why he was arrested now.
The first is that the US went to the Mexican federal government with a plan to take Chapo down. The plan, in theory, followed a US-created timeline, and relied upon an elite US military unit planted within the Mexican marines to seek out Chapo and take him into custody. Bagley says this US-led outside force — again, in theory — allowed the Mexican marines to "circumvent the established lines of bribery and protection" within Mexican jurisdictions that have allowed Chapo to remain a free man since 2001.
The second theory is more complicated. When Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto took office, he promised that his administration would quell drug violence by establishing a 10,000-person paramilitary force to ensure that crimes against civilians would decline. But that paramilitary force failed to stop the violence. Officials in Washington, DC became impatient. So Peña Nieto went back on his promise. "Public opinion in Mexico and the souring of US–Mexican relations lead [Peña Nieto] to believe that getting [Chapo] would be a feather in his cap," Bagley says.
"Arrests of key cartel leaders have led to increasing drug violence."
"Those two theories are not completely incompatible," Bagley says. "In both cases, the Peña Nieto government is able to claim victory … by signaling that, on one level, he's willing to cooperate with Washington, and, on another, he’s honest — he hasn't cut any deals with [Chapo] or the other cartels."
Erfani, the Arizona State drug war scholar, agrees that Mexican politicians such as Peña Nieto need to address the issues of payoffs and bribery. From the Mexican vantage point, she says, the biggest problem apart from violence is corruption. "If you report a crime [in many Mexican jurisdictions], you are probably reporting it to a policeman who has been involved with a drug trafficking organization," she says.
It’s this perception of corruption, she says, that has caused US officials to push for Chapo’s extradition to the US for trial and sentencing. So far Mexico has no plan to do so. Erfani says they won’t. Bagley says they shouldn’t.
"Mexico has been roundly criticized in the United States for losing [Chapo] in 2001 and people say they could lose him again now." For that reason, Bagley says, the Mexican government has an obligation to convict and incarcerate Chapo. "Whether that means building a maximum security prison around him and militarizing the damn thing," he says hyperbolically, "that’s what they need to do."
Bagley also recommended, however, that once Chapo’s convicted they should reach an agreement with the US to have Chapo sent to and tried in the US as well. "Have the US bear the costs of keeping him behind bars for the rest of his life."
"He's a drug lord and a dangerous criminal. It needed to be done."
Even if that’s what Mexico decides to do, it’s tough to say Chapo’s arrest will have much impact on Mexico’s drug trade. Even Peña Nieto seemed to be aware that capturing cartel leaders such as Chapo would do little to quell violence. ("There is always another kingpin to replace the last," a senior Peña Nieto official told the BBC.) High-level reports from organizations such as the US Congressional Research Service have suggested that kingpin arrests actually make things worse: "Arrests of key cartel leaders," the report says, "have led to increasing drug violence as cartels fight for control of the trafficking routes into the United States."
Regardless Chapo’s arrest itself represents a major accomplishment, Bagley says. Chapo was "a major threat to the integrity and to the national security of Mexico," he says. And by arresting Chapo, the Mexican government has "eliminated a powerful enemy. He's a drug lord and a dangerous criminal. It needed to be done."
Bagley goes on: "This is not the end of drug trafficking in Mexico. It’s not the end of the Sinaloa cartel. And it’s certainly not the end of briberies among cartels or of efforts to establish parasitic and symbiotic relationships with levels of government that permit them through bribery to retain protection from the law."
A former US federal law enforcement official who has intimate knowledge of the case and cannot be identified for security reasons put it a different way.
"It is the cumulative effect that makes a difference in reducing drug use and crime — reducing drug production on one end, and drug consumption on the other. Any one particular arrest is limited in value to the overall effort."
"To that end," the former official says, "the effect of this one arrest is nothing. The net gain is zero."