Notorious Mexican drug lord ‘El Chapo’ faced extradition to the US last January. Why has his removal not improved public safety in Mexico?
T he Metropolitan Correctional Centre in Manhattan, often referred to as the ‘Guantánamo of New York’, earlier this year added one more infamous criminal to its ranks: Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo.
Two prison breaks and multiple years on the run have earned the Mexican drug lord a reputation for elusive guile and criminal cunning. For decades, El Chapo has overseen operations of the Sinaloa cartel, once Mexico's most powerful drug trafficking coalition.
The cartel has bankrolled political and economic elites, engaged in bloody turf wars with rival groups and controlled the supply of narcotics to most of the West coast, Midwest and Northeast of the US. Some have lauded Mr. Guzmán as an anti-establishment, Robin Hood-style hero, but many more have condemned him as a violent and destructive criminal.
On the surface, the extradition of El Chapo in January was a major success for the war on drugs and a key victory for Mexico’s unpopular president, Enrique Peña Nieto. However, critics suggest that the government’s actions have done little to weaken the potent criminal networks operating within Mexico. In fact, observers say the extradition may have caused further damage to public security.
At the beginning of his term, President Peña Nieto offered a revised security policy that focused on crime and violence prevention, reforms to the justice system and victims’ rights protection. Mr. Peña Nieto criticised the practice of combatting criminal organisations with violence, claiming such approaches did not contain violence in the long term.
However, the president’s strategy for tackling crime, observers say, is now more akin to those employed by former President Felipe Calderón who declared the Mexican ‘War on Drugs’ in 2006.
“The new criminal justice system seeks to reduce impunity and violations of the rights of the accused,” Froylán Enciso, senior analyst for Mexico at Crisis Group, told The World Weekly. If the president were to abandon them, he would “repeat the mistakes of his predecessor,” viewing the use of massive violence as the only option for tackling criminal groups.
This year is set to be the most violent year on record in Mexico. Homicide rates are on track to surpass those of 2011, the climax of Mr. Calderón’s heavily militarised war on drugs. From the start of 2017 until the beginning of November, on average 69 murders were committed a day across the country. Crimes such as kidnapping, extortion, carjacking and violent robbery have also surged in the last year.
The kingpin strategy
The capture of dominant cartel leaders is a popular strategy in the war against drugs. This approach, widely known as the ‘kingpin strategy’, has been employed by drug enforcement units in other countries. A similar campaign ended the reign of Medellín cartel boss Pablo Escobar in Colombia and largely contributed to the demise of the chiefs of the Cali cartel.
Targeting heads of criminal enterprises seeks to provoke an irreparable weakening of the groups’ organisational structure and to disrupt established chains of command and operation. Yet, such an approach often has unsolicited consequences.
The assassination or imprisonment of a leader can throw criminal organisations and even whole territories into chaos. Power vacuums opening up along strategic trafficking routes lead to turf wars as various groups vie for control. Incumbent groups become weaker, presenting the opportunity for rival criminal organisations to move in and take over illegal operations.
The arrest of El Chapo is a case in point. “The Sinaloa cartel has been a dominant cartel for so long that a leadership vacuum creates a lot of uncertainty,” Brian Phillips, associate professor at the Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics in Mexico City, told TWW. “This is being reflected right now in the violence in Sinaloa and elsewhere.”
One group challenging El Chapo’s successors is the New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG), which now contends with the Sinaloa cartel for control of strategic areas, including Tijuana and the port of Manzanillo.
The Sinaloa cartel also faced internal struggles. Since El Chapo’s extradition, his former right hand man, Dámaso ‘El Licenciado’ López, has reportedly engaged in a bitter dispute with two of El Chapo’s sons, Iván Archivaldo and Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar. Control has now reportedly succeeded to Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada, a longstanding ally of El Chapo and his sons. This has somewhat stabilised the inner conflict for now.
Mexico’s criminal landscape is rife with rivalries resulting from the fragmentation of many criminal organisations. It is the repeated process of eliminating kingpins, critics say, that has precipitated the formation of these warring splinter groups and dissident factions. The resulting violence is now taking its toll on Mexican society.
Public enemy number one
To attribute the spike in violence entirely to the removal of one kingpin underestimates the complexity and multiplicity of the groups involved. “It is important to remember that these tensions far predate El Chapo’s removal,” Eric Olson, senior advisor at the Mexico Institute, an organisation working to improve US-Mexico relations, told TWW.
Current approaches to fighting cartels tend to be too limited, prioritising the national over the overarching international issues at hand. “The kingpin strategy doesn’t really deal with the underlying causes of supply and demand, illicit economies and the black market,” says Mr. Olson.
Criminal organisations operating in Mexico work in close collaboration with partners across the globe. Cartels cannot be viewed in isolation from chemical producers in Africa and Asia, or from buyers on the streets of US and European cities. As long as this illicit economy continues to be profitable, the drug trade will not cease to exist.
An approach which may bring more concrete results, according to critics of the current strategy, would centre on damage limitation. Re-establishing public order and security in specific localities would “minimise the impact of violence and crime”, says Mr. Olson. This strategy would ally the state with civilians, who are often sidelined by militarised approaches and suffer from the ensuing fallout.
The emergence of smaller criminal groups further diminishes the impact of the kingpin strategy. Such organisations use a more linear, less hierarchical structure and engage in local activities such as extortion, kidnapping and robbery, rather than transnational crime.
The creation of special anti-extortion and kidnapping units, as well as an increase in local police presence could serve to diminish the violent impact of such groups, observers say.
Back in New York, Joaquín Guzmán Loera remains isolated in his federal prison cell. Once named ‘public enemy number one’, El Chapo’s rule of dominance seems to be over. But his legacy lives on.
The extradition of the kingpin may have made for striking headlines but it has not yet paved the way to greater public security in Mexico.