Rhen Osama Bin Laden bit the dust in Pakistan last month, the world’s media rushed to speculate as to who might replace him as the World’s Most Wanted Man. The name thrown up most frequently, on account of how mystically elusive he appears to be, was one Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, the head of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel and the biggest drug lord in Narcoville. Since he broke out (or “walked out” is the common consensus) of a maximum security prison in 2001, Guzman’s drug-trafficking empire has gone supernova, his estimated $1 billion personal fortune landing him a spot on the Forbes List as the 11th richest man in Mexico.
The Sinaloa Cartel controls more territory than any other drug-trafficking organization (DTO) in Mexico, distributing Colombian cocaine as well as domestically-produced marijuana, opium, and methamphetamine. The organization has successfully smashed its rivals’ operations in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, and other key smuggling hubs to the point where formerly powerful cartels are either hanging on for dear life or mere tributaries. Then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room – the fact that independent analysts and countless officials cite collusion between the Sinaloa Cartel and the federal government, which apparently prefers Guzman’s mob over the others. “El Chapo” – the nickname means “Shorty” – is routinely described as “el capo del panismo”, “capo” meaning drug boss and “panismo” referring to the current ruling party, the PAN, or National Action Party.
Mexico has seen the worst kind of action since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug-traffickers in 2006. Over 45,000 troops and federal officers have been deployed across the country in a US-funded crackdown, leading the DTOs to fight each other even harder over both cross-border traffic and a rapidly growing domestic market. In the resulting melee, former big names like the Tijuana and Juarez Cartels have taken serious losses; budding rivals like La Familia Michoacana and the Beltran Leyva Organization have come and gone, but the Sinaloa Cartel has only grown stronger. Its last major rival, the infamously violent Los Zetas, has made some gains but is taking a pounding from the Mexican military, which has made a slew of arrests and seizures against it.
Born into poverty, for “El Chapo” Guzman the drug trade was an easy route to otherwise unattainable wealth (opium and marijuana have been big business in fertile Sinaloa since the early 20th century) and as a young man he became an apprentice of Pedro Aviles Perez, one of the first generation of big-time Mexican traffickers. Ambitious and savvy, Guzman took over what became the Sinaloa Cartel when the legendary Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (“the Godfather”) was busted in 1989. Four years later, Guzman was arrested and sentenced to twenty years for drug-trafficking and bribery, but on the eve of being extradited to the US in 2001, he miraculously escaped from Puente Grande maximum security prison in Jalisco. The most famous breakout in Mexican history purportedly occurred “A-Team”-style in a laundry cart, the wheels greased by $2.5 million worth of bribes for prison officials.
Guzman’s escape took place early in the presidency of Vicente Fox, the first PAN administration after the 70-year PRI regime was thrown out in 2000. Every Mexican administration since the 1970s is said to have had its preferred drug lord. Whereas the PRI supposedly favored the Gulf Cartel in the ‘90s, the arrival of the PAN saw a shift of allegiance to the cartel with the closest ties to the party. Soon after leaving Puente Grande, Guzman called a meeting of top capos to plot the future of the Mexican drug trade, going after the then-dominant Gulf organization (now an ally) and later breaking a long-held truce with the Juarez Cartel, leading to a violent turf war in the border city of the same name. The goal was expansion and dominance, and Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel has been a juggernaut ever since.
“El Chapo” has taken on near-mythical status; rumors fly about his latest whereabouts and activity, or how hundreds of guests – including local politicians and police – raised their glasses when he married for the third time in 2007. For ordinary Mexicans, he is the personification of the intense “narco-violence” plaguing the country, which has gotten much, much worse since Calderon turned up the heat. The president’s apologists (and there are very few) claim that the PAN backs Guzman under the notion that it’s better to live with one all-powerful cartel and then negotiate peace. But Calderon leaves office next year, almost certainly handing over the reins to the PRI, and the cartel war goes on unabated between the Sinaloa Federation (Guzman and his allies) and a loose coalition of Los Zetas, the Juarez Cartel, and other DTOs.
Guzman commands significant respect (and fear) among Mexico’s downtrodden as a self-made man who stuck several fingers up to the authorities, particularly in his native Sinaloa where country songs portray him as a Robin Hood-type figure, albeit with AK-47 replacing crossbow. He has myriad political and business connections and the financial clout to buy new ones. His current rumored hideout is in the northern state of Durango.
There’s a theory brewing in Mexico, however, which says that Calderon is now so unpopular after five years of socially-devastating policy that he has not only cost his party next year’s election, but risks going down as one of the country’s worst ever presidents (which the average Mexican will tell you is no easy feat). After Bin Laden’s death hit the headlines, many domestic observers suggested that Calderon’s only option to salvage his legacy and leave office on a high is to pull an Obama “black-ninja-gangster” moment (as Bill Maher would say) and take Guzman down. The Colombian government pulled off a similar coup with Pablo Escobar in 1993, which had absolutely no effect on the cocaine trade but at least gave the impression that Colombia could kick some tail.
But just as one can question whether Bin Laden’s death really meant anything beyond retribution for 9/11, it’s uncertain what taking down “El Chapo” would do for Mexico’s Drug War. The major DTOs regularly go through internal upheavals where factions split off and go to war with one another, or one capo makes a power play to take control of the organization, leading to yet more bloodshed. The Sinaloa Cartel has long been considered the most stable of the Mexican DTOs, largely on account of Guzman’s iron hand. For that reason, “El Chapo” may be too valuable to simply wind up as trophy kill.
At some stage, the Mexican government will have to declare an endgame in the Drug War, or civil protests like the 100,000-strong March for Peace in Mexico City in May, and subsequent “Peace Caravan” that culminated in Juarez/El Paso, will become increasingly politicized. While obviously blaming the drug cartels as much as the politicians, many Mexicans resent the fact that their country has become a war zone due to the mores of US anti-drug and pro-militarization policy. As for Calderon – facing savage criticism at home – it’s likely that he didn’t expect the cartel war to get this bloody or drag on for so long. Yet while his own public decries his policies, Calderon continues to receive the green light from the Obama administration for further zero-tolerance. One might imagine the rhetoric from Washington if Hugo Chavez had deployed 45,000 troops to do the job of the police in Venezuela – allusions to military dictatorship, Soviet-style authoritarianism, not to mention “human rights abuses” would be rampant, and probably followed by an excuse for US intervention.
Needless to say, painting “El Chapo” as the drug trade’s Bin Laden is far easier for both media and politicians than addressing the more crucial issues of drug law reform and vast consumer demand, factors that feed men like Guzman. For Mexico, there are also huge questions to be asked about why an estimated 450,000 citizens have turned to the incredibly risky drug trade for employment in the first place. The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, has devastated Mexican agriculture and driven many small farmers to grow opium and marijuana in its place. Meanwhile, in the cities, unemployed youth join street gangs that ultimately work for the DTOs, providing muscle in exchange for guns, cars and cash.
Mexico needs to find a way out. With nearly 40,000 lives lost and violence continuing to swell in trouble spots like Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, something has to give. The inevitable return to power of Mexico’s old guard, the PRI, next year may see more of a willingness to negotiate with the cartels, but just as the death of Osama Bin Laden is really just a footnote in the “War on Terror”, the capture or killing of “El Chapo” would only lead to more massacres in Mexico’s own never-ending war.