On Saturday, Feb. 22, Mexican officials with help from various U.S. law enforcement agencies captured the notorious leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. In what seems like a tremendous coup, it took place without a shot being fired. Even though there are questions like — “Was this too easy?” or “Will the decapitation of drug cartels only lead to more violence as underlings fight to take the place of the captured leader?” or “Is this just the Mexican government deciding not to continue protecting Chapo?” — I believe that it’s an important accomplishment. Chapo is a man of extraordinary skills and will be very difficult to replace. Imagine him fighting his way to leadership among the drug cartels, manipulating everyone, including the director, in the maximum security prison where he was committed in 1995 so that he could later escape, those many years of eluding arrest, and his continuing ability to manage roughly 25 percent of Mexico’s illegal drug trade. He has been on Forbes’ list of the most powerful people in the world and recently was ranked 67th, just one spot behind House Speaker John Boehner.
What happens next? If I were Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, I would quickly extradite him to the United States. Yes, there are issues of national pride as well as the potential for Chapo to reveal some very unpleasant secrets in a plea bargaining process with American officials. However, the thought of him possibly escaping from a Mexican prison has to be Peña Nieto’s worst nightmare. Further, look at the difficulties of trying him in Mexico. Who in their right mind will dare to testify against him or be his lawyer?
The death of drug lord Amado Carrillo in 1997 has three interesting parallels as to what might come next. One of the richest criminals in history with an alleged but unconfirmed worth of $25 billion (far more than Chapo), he was known as “El Señor de los Cielos” or the Lord of the Skies because of his fleet of jet planes used to transport drugs. First, he had a rule that drugs were for exportation to the U.S., not for use in Juárez. That rule collapsed when he died. As a result, drug use surged with its accompanying violence. Second, he was even more firmly in control than Chapo, but that control vanished after his death with the result that there are now hundreds of gangs in Juárez, gangs that have branched out into all sorts of other crimes like extortion, car-jacking and contract murders. (You can have someone killed there for less than $200.)
The third parallel to Carrillo concerns his death during plastic surgery in Mexico City in 1997. Anyone considering being Chapo’s attorney ought to consider what happened to Carrillo’s two doctors after that unsuccessful operation. Four months later, their corpses were found encased in cement inside steel drums.
No one knows exactly what will happen. During the term of ex-President Felipe Calderón (2006-12), his “decapitation” strategy resulted in more violence. Now there will be a period while other cartels adapt to Chapo’s capture and the appointing of a new leader for the Sinaloa cartel. The supposed frontrunner is Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada who is older (66) than Chapo (he’s either 57 or 60, depending on which birthdate you use), well established within the cartel, less violent and considered somewhat of a peacemaker. An internal bloodbath, therefore, looks less likely. Because of his age and health, however, El Mayo probably wouldn’t be the leader for long. When he eventually steps down, the power vacuum would be larger than now and the potential for an explosion of violence more significant.
In addition, the structure of the cartels is changing to more of a decentralized, franchise-like system like that of the Zetas, Mexico’s most violent cartel. Author Charles Bowden (“Murder City, Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Field”) likens it to Dunkin Donuts, reminding us that, despite all the violence, this is basically a business. So a dominant leader may be less essential.
If Chapo is tried in Mexico, which is likely despite the risks, the work of Coloradans might come into play. In 2006, attorney general John Suthers and other Attorneys General in the western states formed what is called the Council of Western Attorneys General Alliance Partnership with the goal of offering law enforcement and legal training to Mexican officials in an effort to upgrade Mexico’s inefficient judicial system. They’ve trained several thousand officials; maybe some of them will be part of a Chapo prosecution.
In the longer run, several other factors might be more important than this capture. First, the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington with other states poised to follow will cut sharply into cartel profits from marijuana smuggling. The less demand there is in the U.S., the less violence in Mexico. Second, Mexico is suddenly way ahead of the United States in terms of reforming and advancing its economy. By breaking the telecommunications monopoly that made Carlos Slim the world’s richest man, taking on the corrupt and once all-powerful teacher union that has done so much damage to the education of young Mexicans, and opening up Pemex, the national oil company to foreign investment, Mexico has shown that governments can actually function. This will lead, albeit slowly, to increased wealth and more jobs. For those many Mexicans who I see on the border, it will mean an alternative to today’s choice between making $5 a day picking up cans along the highways or joining a cartel. As unglamorous as it sounds, that is the real solution.
Morgan Smith is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives, Commissioner of Agriculture and Director of the Colorado International Trade Office. He travels to Juárez and Palomas, Mexico twice a month to work with and document various humanitarian programs. He can be reached at Morgan firstname.lastname@example.org.