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 WLRN.org. Visit the website to hear the radio version.