Getting ‘Shorty’ won’t end Mexico’s narco-wars

Drug trafficker Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted to a helicopter by Mexican security forces last Saturday following his capture.
Drug trafficker Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted to a helicopter by Mexican security forces last Saturday following his capture.
Susana Gonzalez / Bloomberg

Mexico's nightmarish, decade-long drug war seemed to start in 2001, when Joaquín Guzmán escaped from a Guadalajara prison inside a laundry truck.

So could this weekend's celebrated capture of Guzmán — the world's most wanted drug lord — mark the ebb of that violence?

Don't count on it — at least not until Mexico addresses more seriously the deep police and judicial flaws that helped make it so hard to collar Guzmán in the first place.

In his 2011 book, El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency, journalist Ioan Grillo examined the factors that kept Guzmán — a.k.a. El Chapo, or “Shorty” — a free man for so long.

• First there was the terrain: Guzmán’s native surroundings were the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico’s northwestern Sinaloa state — the cradle of Mexican drug trafficking — the sort of difficult turf where a kingpin can dart and hide like a billy goat to elude cops and soldiers.

• Second, the locals: As head of Mexico’s — and arguably the world’s — most powerful drug mafia, the Sinaloa Cartel, Guzmán could count on a vast network of people, from village campesinos to yuppies in cities like Culiacán, to keep his whereabouts secret and tip him off whenever heat approached. He could eat at ease at any popular restaurant simply by picking up the check for every patron in the joint.

• But the most important reason was the heat itself: Mexico’s notoriously corrupt police, who often moonlight for drug cartels, were invaluable to Guzmán. They regularly notified his lieutenants or obstructed law enforcement when they caught wind of upcoming operations to encircle him.

“This is how drug kingpins protect themselves so successfully in Mexico,” says Grillo. “But Chapo proved more difficult than anyone else.”

Until dawn Saturday — when a joint force of Mexican Marines and U.S. anti-drug agents say they captured Guzmán at a hotel in Sinaloa’s Pacific resort town of Mazatlán with surprisingly little resistance.

The 56-year-old Guzmán had by now become a legend in Mexico and the western hemisphere.

He was a sort of criminal Achilles in scores of narco-corridos, ballads about drug kingpins — and even made it onto Forbes’ list of the world’s richest billionaires. His empire, which moved marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, stretched from the United States to Central America and became a gargantuan fixture of Mexico’s estimated $30-billion-a-year drug-trafficking industry.

And a bloody one as well — responsible for a large share of the more than 60,000 gangland-related murders that have rocked Mexico during the horrific drug-cartel wars of the past decade. (U.S. drug consumption, lest we forget, bears the blame, too.)

Yet the question now is whether Guzmán’s capture will curb that bloodshed or simply exacerbate it. One factor that may finally have led to his arrest was the fact that many of his generals had themselves been nabbed or had split with him amid intra-cartel disputes.

Arrests of other Mexican cartel bosses in recent years have all too often resulted in vicious turf wars. With Guzmán behind bars, cartel watchers like Grillo worry the same could erupt inside the Sinaloa organization — only to a more intense degree given its wealth and muscle.

“This could cause an earthquake inside Mexican organized crime circles,” says Grillo.

Or, he and other analysts add, it might not, for one simple reason: For all the terror Guzmán inspired — and in Sinaloa strongholds like Culiacán that narco-barbarism is very real — experts say his gang is actually a more traditional Mexican cartel, in that it tends to view too much blood as bad for business.

Guzmán, in fact, often employed the narco-equivalent of publicity agents to argue in Mexican media or even on makeshift billboards that he was not of the whack-bloodthirsty ilk that headed up newer gangs like the Zetas. That group, which was founded by former Mexican army commandos and made ghastly beheadings its calling card, emerged as the Sinaloa Cartel’s fiercest rival in the 2000s.

In that regard, the 2012 killing of Zetas boss Heriberto Lazcano — a.k.a El Verdugo, or “Executioner” — at the hands of the same Marines who hauled in Guzmán may have had more of an impact on stemming violence.

An equally important consideration is whether Guzmán’s arrest marks a turning point for rule of law in Mexico. Or will it be another major kingpin collar that Mexican officials so often use to make the world believe the country is headed toward reform, but which results in little if any change inside its venal and inept police and judicial systems?

That’s why the Mazatlán operation is especially important for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI ruled Mexico as a one-party dictatorship for 71 years, but finally lost power in 2000 in no small part because of its own notorious coziness with drug lords.

When Peña Nieto brought the PRI back to power in 2012, he had to convince Mexicans that his party was no longer soft on los narcos.

Getting Shorty will help. Following up Shorty’s capture with real rule-of-law modernization in Mexico would be even better.

This story originally appeared on Visit the website to hear the radio version.

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

Tony Lesesne


    Tony Lesesne: Overkill, and an apology

    Yes, it happens in South Florida, too — and it shouldn’t. Black men pulled over, needlessly hassled by police officers who give the rest of their colleagues a bad name, who make no distinction when a suspect has no other description than ‘black male,’ who harass residents because they can. A North Miami Beach officer pulls over a black man in a suit and tie — and behind the wheel of an Audi that simply had to be stolen, right? In another Miami-Dade city, an officer demands that an African-American man installing a vegetable garden justify why he has a shovel and seedlings. Detained for possession of cilantro? Here are five South Floridians who tell of their experiences in this community and beyond, years ago, and all too recently.

Delrish Moss


    Delrish Moss: Out after dark

    “I was walking up Seventh Avenue, just shy of 14th street. I was about 17 and going home from my job. I worked at Biscayne Federal Bank after school. The bank had a kitchen, and I washed the dishes. A police officer gets out of his car. He didn’t say anything. He came up and pushed me against a wall, frisked me, then asked what I was doing walking over here after dark. Then he got into his car and left. I never got a chance to respond. I remember standing there feeling like my dignity had been taken with no explanation. I would have felt better about that incident had I gotten some sort of dialogue. I had not had any encounters with police.


    Bill Diggs: Hurt officer’s feelings

    “I’m the first generation in my family to go to college, and if I wanted to do nothing else, I wanted to make my mom happy. I was living for my parents, I wanted to be that guy, I wanted to go to work and not have to put on steel-toe boots. And here I am in Atlanta, I have finally grown to a particular level of affluence. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was a college kid, wearing a suit, driving a nice BMW going to work everyday. Can’t beat that. I would leave my house, drive up Highway 78, the Stone Mountain area, grab some coffee, go to work. So on this particular morning, there’s a cop who’s rustling up this homeless guy outside the gas station where I was filling up. I’m shaking my head, the cop looks at me. This homeless guy is there every morning. I get in my car and on to the expressway. The police officer comes shooting up behind me. I doing 65, 70. He gets up behind me, I notice he’s following me. I get in one lane, he gets in the lane, I get in another lane, he gets in that lane. He finally flips his lights on, he comes up to the car. I’ve been pulled over for speeding before, I know the drill. Got my hands up here, don’t want to get shot, and I think he’s going to say what I’ve heard before: ‘License and registration, please.’ He says ‘Get out of the car!’ and he reaches in and grabs me by my shirt. He says, ‘So you’re a smart ass, huh?’ Finally he says, ‘License and registration.’ I tell him it’s in the car. He says, ‘Get it for me!’ He goes back to his car, comes back and asks, ‘So where did you get the car from?’ I say ‘It’s a friend of mine’s.” He says, ‘Is it stolen? What are you doing driving your friend’s car?’ I finally asked, ‘Is there a reason you stopped me? You followed me, what’s up, man?’ He says, ‘I’m going to let you go with a warning, but if you see me doing what I’ve got to do for my job, don’t you ever f---ing worry about it.”

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category