Opinion

El Chapo and the phantom menace

Media’s mythologizing of arrested drug leader distracts public from similar conduct by CEOs in the regular economy

February 27, 2014 10:15AM ET
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman escorted by Mexican navy marines last Saturday after his arrest.
Henry Romero/Reuters

Last weekend's arrest of Joaquín Archivaldo “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, the leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, garnered headlines everywhere. A joint project of Mexican marines and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, the capture legitimates law enforcement efforts based on transnational cooperation. It also demonstrates that no one, however powerful, can evade the law forever.

The style of the immediate reporting on El Chapo's arrest, however, reveals a strong propensity to mythologize someone who was basically the CEO of a multinational corporation. The accounts of his capture reflect the fact that El Chapo has long enjoyed superhero status in popular culture. But when news reporting uncritically adopts the language of myth, it deceives the public about the drug industry’s relationship with the legal economy and ordinary society.

Guzman was wealthy, stealthy, well connected and protected. He helped build a multicontinental business empire. He is also a living legend about whom numerous books, stories, and narcocorridos, or Mexican gangster ballads, have been written. Some of them are critical, others reverential, but all representations of El Chapo marvel at this man's ability to seem omnipresent in Mexico while also avoiding capture since his famous 2001 escape from the Puente Grande maximum-security prison in Jalisco. His incursions into Mexican and U.S. life meld professional, political, criminal, cultural and mythological narratives into one seductive, elusive image.

News sources reserve a special language for talking about prominent figures in the illegal economy. The headlines about Guzman's arrest labeled him a capo, a drug cartel kingpin, a drug lord and an overlord. These terms all have specific histories. We inherit them from periods and social contexts that do not comfortably correspond to global capitalism today. “Capo” evokes the early 20th century history of the Italian mafiosos and their familial crime organizations. “Lord” and “overlord” have feudal overtones. In contrast to words with less loaded connotations, such as “leader” or “head,” the history-laden terms used to label Guzman suggest that bosses in the drug trade possess a nobility or status that marks them apart from ordinary humanity. Like Lord Vader of the “Star Wars” movies, the leaders of the drug industry transcend regular society; they hark back to a bygone age and wield awe-inspiring powers.

However, Guzman's business success is neither superhuman nor ageless. It relies on exactly the same skill sets held by other leaders in business — wildly overpaid CEOs of major corporations in the legal economy, who depend on ruthlessness, single-minded focus on profits and creativity with cost-saving measures as well as marketing strategies, recruitment and management of tight-knit teams of loyal employees, nimble manipulation of allies and lawmakers and a rigid, amoral code of conduct. Forbes, which included El Chapo on its list of "The World's Most Powerful People," is the only source I found that describes him as a CEO, not a kingpin or lord — but that was before his arrest. Never questioned by the reporters, the labels that confer special status assume there is an unquestionable difference between major figures in the drug trade and major figures in other highly profitable transnational industries. They erect a border fence between narco-news and news about the legal economy.

When news coverage depicts drug dealers
as characters whose symbolic life transcends that
of regular people, they set aside real-life issues of
justice and social pacts.

The literary characteristics of almost all of last weekend’s reporting on the arrest are also striking. Many stories fixated on the unassuming condominium building in which El Chapo was found: “a couple of simple couches in the lobby and a bare cement staircase.” Tragically, they imply, El Chapo has fallen from great heights; he plunged from the mythic mountain hideouts of Sinaloa to a drab middle-class beach condo. The stark description of his humiliation invites readers to recall for themselves the music videos and narcocorridos that always represent this kind of character surrounded by wealth, women and respectful underlings. The press photos of the plainly dressed prisoner looking meek beside masked military captors display a shift of power from the rich, ubiquitous phantom to the law enforcement agents who collared him. The photos also raise ambiguities about that shift, though, since El Chapo can show his face publicly while the law enforcement agents cannot, for fear of reprisals by their prisoner’s allies.

Many reporters noted the irony that Guzman “was found hiding in plain sight” (see "El Miedo del Chapo Guzman"). This claim lends poignancy to the law enforcement victory, but it conflicts with historical accounts of Guzman’s elaborate methods of avoiding detection since 2001. It also disregards another aspect of this case: Guzman may never really have been in hiding at all, given his ability to collude with officials who would look the other way anytime they were in a position to nab him. Many Mexicans, the population most directly affected by cartel violence, responded to Saturday’s events with cynicism (“It’s obviously a negotiated surrender, all for show”), incredulity (“That’s not really El Chapo”) or indifference (“There are plenty more to take his place”). These reactions question the relevance of the arrest to Guzman’s reputation as well as to the drug trade overall. In contrast, the reporters make the capture itself deeply meaningful as part of the myth of an all-powerful villain-hero.

When news coverage depicts drug dealers as characters whose symbolic life transcends that of regular people, they set aside real-life issues of justice and social pacts. These stories of passion, intrigue, transgression and tragedy allow readers among the law-abiding public to safely imagine horrific violence and psychopathic behaviors and conceive of them as out of the ordinary — as conduct that doesn’t occur in regular society. We get to judge the characters and at the same time enjoy the narrative risk-free.

What does this literary press coverage accomplish beyond facilitating a simple display of power by the Mexican and U.S. governments? Playing on our attraction to violence is only part of the problem. The bigger problem is that the special language we use to talk about the illegal economy keeps us in a faith-based relationship to the legal economy. It continually relegitimates legal economic practices through distraction. It diverts our attention from analyzing the social costs of other types of corporate excess and destruction by focusing instead on their more brutally violent mirror images.

To be sure, El Chapo Guzman is a murderer, an extortionist and a dangerous, power-hungry man. I am glad he has been arrested insofar as his incarceration may limit his ability to harm others. But he is just a man. High-profile arrests like this have not lowered murder and kidnapping rates in the past. In fact, violence increased exponentially when the Mexican government's intense assault on narco-traffic as of 2007 debilitated the Gulf cartel and the Zetas, the Sinaloa cartel's main rivals. That campaign turned El Chapo Guzman into the CEO of the most powerful cartel in the world. We don't know what effects, if any, his capture will have on cartels' organizational structures and distribution routes, or on their clients' drug consumption habits — especially in the U.S., the Sinaloa cartel's biggest customer by far.

Murderers and public enemies should be arrested and tried. But let’s not lose sight of the murderers and public enemies who are also to be found among major figures in legal trade industries. Their responsibility is all the more likely to be mediated by legal structures that keep them from getting their own hands dirty. We, the general public who read about arrests of larger-than-life villains, should beware of our own desires. While we get the characters we demand, we may well become easier prey to the menace we don't want to see. 

Rebecca E. Biron is a professor of Spanish, comparative literature and Latin American studies at Dartmouth College. She is the author of "Elena Garro and Mexico's Modern Dreams," "City/Art: The Urban Scene in Latin America" and "Murder and Masculinity: Violent Fictions of 20th Century Latin America."

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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