International

Guzman’s arrest unlikely to ease violence in Mexico

Analysis: Capture of ‘El Chapo’ will have little effect unless Mexico tackles endemic corruption

Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera being escorted by marines, Feb. 22, 2014, in Mexico City.
2014 AFP

The 13-year international manhunt for the world's most wanted criminal came to an anticlimactic end on Saturday when Mexican marines, with the help of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, arrested Joaquin Guzman Loera in Mazatlan in his home state of Sinaloa. No shots were fired.

No one stands to benefit from the arrest of "El Chapo," the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, more than Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. With the capture he has succeeded where his two predecessors failed — despite his pledge to steer resources away from the militarized battle against crime syndicates and lessen security cooperation with the United States. As Mexican media point out, Guzman is Peña Nieto's Osama bin Laden.

But the effect of Guzman's arrest on organized crime in Mexico remains uncertain. His detention, analysts say, does nothing to combat corruption, the deeply ingrained vestige of Mexico's authoritarian past. That corruption — fueled by multibillion-dollar drug profits — continues to influence local police, judges and politicians. And it remains a pillar of drug traffickers' ability to operate.

"Guzman's detention has huge political significance for (Peña Nieto). It prolongs his honeymoon with Europe and the United States," said Edgardo Buscaglia, a crime expert at Columbia University and president of the Citizen Action Institute in Mexico. "But his arrest will have little effect in the absence of judicial controls, within a judicial system that produces one sentence for every 100 crimes."

"Mexican governments have not dismantled the production and distribution systems of legal businesses that form part of the Sinaloa network," Buscaglia said. "These still exist despite El Chapo's arrest."

It's a sentiment echoed by the opposition Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) upon Guzman's arrest on Saturday: Before Mexico can right itself, the political elite must reach consensus and agree to tackle organized crime.

Guzman's arrest will be "an oblivious victory, a media coup," if Mexico continues to take isolated action in absence of an integrated strategy, the party said in a statement. "The PRD demands the arrest of other criminal leaders, the dismantling of the criminal syndicates' financial networks and a battle against impunity."

"El Chapo" bought that impunity during a storied career that is legend in Mexico. Under the stewardship of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo — Mexico's biggest cocaine dealer during the 1980s — Guzman came to dominate the global cocaine market. In the process, he amassed well over $1 billion and made the list of Forbes world billionaires for four consecutive years.

Under his leadership, the Sinaloa cartel bolstered its drug trafficking dominance by branching out into the heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana markets. The cartel's criminal portfolio also includes kidnapping and human trafficking. Today Sinaloa operates in 17 Mexican states and in as many as 50 countries, including the U.S., where it is blamed for 80 percent of the drug trade in certain cities.

Some Mexican crime analysts say the cartel was able to amass so much power in the last decade partly because of its powerful contacts in the National Action Party (PAN), which led the two administrations before Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party regained power in December 2012.

Under Peña Nieto's immediate predecessor, Felipe Calderon, the Mexican government launched a high-profile militarized attack against Sinaloa's major enemies, including the Zetas and the Gulf cartel. That drive is blamed for fueling a wave of cartel violence that left more than 70,000 dead in the last seven years. Throughout, Guzman and his major lieutenants remained unscathed.

But federal authorities began to close in on Guzman after nabbing associates of Ismael Zambada, one of Guzman's principal partners and his potential successor. In early February federal police swept through Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, and arrested several top Zambada officials. But a U.S. law enforcement official told The Associated Press that some of Zambada's associates were Guzman's security personnel and that they provided information that led to Guzman's arrest.

That the DEA and U.S. marshals were heavily involved in Guzman's arrest seems to contradict Peña Nieto. Shortly after taking office, the Mexican president vowed to reduce cooperation with U.S. authorities in the search for drug kingpins, unlike Calderon.

Hours after the arrest, Jeh Johnson, head of the Department of Homeland Security, said Guzman's capture "is a significant victory and milestone in our common interest of combating drug trafficking, violence and illicit activity along our shared border."

Now the question remains whether Mexico will extradite Guzman to the U.S., where he faces drug trafficking and organized crime charges in eight districts. On Sunday the U.S. Attorney's office said federal prosecutors in New York plan to ask Mexico for his extradition.

"The only way the arrest of this man (Guzman) results in the dismantling of the Sinaloa cartel, at least partially, including his arms, human and drug trafficking operations," Buscaglia said, "is if he is extradited to the United States and if investigations are generated from there."

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