The news that Mexico had captured notorious drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán a few days ago was barely out before the naysaying started: It won’t end the drug scourge. It will produce more violence. High-profile arrests don’t mean much. Bottom line: No big deal.
Not so fast. There’s some truth to the notion that no matter how big the fish, another will eventually surface to replace him. But even so, taking down the world’s most wanted criminal overlord, is, in fact , a big deal. Especially when it happens in Mexico.
Guzmán’s arrest puts an end to doubts that the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto is less than fully committed to the drug war. His seizure comes just months after Miguel Treviño Morales, leader of the rival gang known as Los Zetas, was also captured by government forces. There were questions about the government’s intentions when candidate Peña Nieto criticized the bloody, all-out battle against narcocriminals waged by his predecessor, Felipe Calderón.
At the time, Mr. Peña Nieto said the real answer lies in structural reform of the police and judiciary to eliminate corruption. Some took it as a coded message suggesting he was seeking an accommodation with the drug lords. El Chapo’s arrest should put such notions to rest. Even better, the new administration is trying to make good, as well, on the president’s anti-corruption promises.
The capture also means that U.S.-Mexican cooperation in the fight against narcotics traffickers is producing results. Giving a nod to the U.S. role in cornering El Chapo, Mexico’s ambassador to Washington, Eduardo Medina Mora, recently said it reflects the fact that “information-sharing through bilateral cooperation is being put to good use.”
In the end, all of El Chapo’s money and influence, not to mention the fear he induced among adversaries, could not buy him peace of mind and, ultimately, could not keep him out of prison. The myth of the invincible drug lord proved to be just that — a myth.
That’s good for the rule of law in Mexico and good for tearing down the walls of mutual mistrust between U.S. and Mexican law-enforcement authorities.
Guzmán’s capture is not the end of the story, of course. It will, no doubt, produce more bloody turf wars among the various factions trying to control the flow of cocaine and marijuana — and, increasingly, heroin — into the United States. But we doubt that the heads of the Zetas or the Gulf Cartel or the so-called Knights Templar, rivals of Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel, will rest easier having seen proof of the government’s serious intent — and ability — to bring them to justice.
This is not Guzmán’s first time in the hoosegow. He was nabbed in 1993 and sentenced to 20 years in jail, yet managed to escape in a Hollywoodesque caper involving a corrupt prison guard and a laundry cart in 2001. And no one in Mexico, or in U.S. law-enforcement circles, would vouch for the tight security of present-day Mexican prisons or the incorruptibility of its judiciary.
That’s why El Chapo should be extradited to the United States, where he’s been indicted in more than a half-dozen jurisdictions, with Chicago appearing to have the best claim on him. Escaping from prison in Mexico is too easy.
There is ample precedent for Mexico agreeing to such extraditions. In the case of El Chapo, it would cement the U.S.-Mexico partnership in waging the drug war and ensure that the biggest prize in this battle doesn’t vanish once again under a pile of dirty clothes.