El Chapo and the limits of the kingpin arrest strategy

Curtailing the drug trade requires an overhaul of global drug policies

March 4, 2014 9:30AM ET
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in 1993 at the Almoloya de Juarez prison, on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Damian Dovarganes/AP

Until his recent arrest, the world’s biggest drug trafficker, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, ran an enviably profitable business. His emissaries bought kilo bricks of cocaine for about $2,000 each in Colombia and sold them for about $30,000 on the U.S. border. By the time that brick was cut into grams to be snorted in New York nightclubs or cooked into rocks in inner-city Detroit, it was worth over $100,000. With Guzman’s pipeline pumping out tons of this white gold month after month, it’s no surprise that he made Forbes magazine’s billionaires list.

Adding to the cocaine dollars, Guzman’s cartel also moved hundreds of tons of marijuana, which is about as common as daisies in the mountains of Mexico’s Sinaloa state, where he was born. His employees bought chemical ingredients in Asia, cooked them into crystal meth in Sinaloa’s industrial-size labs and sold the finished product across the United States. In addition, the cartel churned out Mexican Mud heroin from the opium that Sinaloans have been growing for the last 100 years. (Sinaloan growers quickly stepped in to fill the demand when the United States prohibited most use of opiates with the 1914 Harrison Act.)

Guzman’s secret to success was simply living next door to the biggest black market for drugs in the world. The White House estimates that Americans spend more than $80 billion a year on illegal drugs, and Mexicans are the biggest suppliers. The narcotics trade sends a gush of greenbacks over the Rio Grande, where they build ostentatious mansions in Sinaloa’s capital of Culiacan, line the pockets of corrupt police officers and turn thousands of poor young men into paid assassins.

This is not just a U.S. problem, however. My home country, Britain, consumes vast amounts of illegal drugs, as does the rest of Europe. Pounds and euros add to the shady bank accounts of Latin American kingpins, often offshore in tax havens with secrecy and limited oversight.

As Guzman’s arrest made global headlines on Feb. 22, commentators asked the million-dollar question, What does it achieve? It is a pertinent question that most news stories, caught up in the spy catcher details of the raid, did not address. Won’t another gangster simply take over where Guzman left off to get a piece of the multibillion dollar pie?

When President Richard Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973, agents quickly realized they couldn’t stop the drug trade with arrests of local dealers, known as nickel and dime busts. Instead they crafted techniques of paying informants and infiltrating cartels to go after the kingpins, the Guzmans. It is known in the business as the cartel decapitation strategy — cutting off the head to kill the beast. In those optimistic early days, drug warriors actually believed that narcotics could be abolished if they arrested the top traffickers. 

Drug enforcement is like a hammer striking down constantly on a bunch of rats. Any rat that grows too big gets squashed, but the vermin problem continues.

In 1993, U.S. agents worked with Colombian special forces to bring down the world’s then-biggest trafficker, Pablo Escobar. Rather than stop the cocaine trade, that simply shifted its biggest profits from Colombia to Mexico. This became known as the drug war balloon effect: If trafficking is stopped in one place, it simply rushes like air to another. Twenty years after Escobar’s shooting, with more than 70,000 recorded cartel-related deaths in Mexico, we have another takedown of a trafficker that TV shows can be made about.

I recently asked a senior DEA agent what the agency now believes the kingpin strategy achieves. He admitted that the strategy of going after the top traffickers does not stop the narcotics trade but said that it at least prevents criminals from getting too powerful. In this vision, drug enforcement is like a hammer striking down constantly on a bunch of rats. Any rat that grows too big gets squashed, but the vermin problem continues.

Yet as agents and soldiers keep fighting these battles on the streets of Latin America, there is a sea change in thinking on the whole concept of the war on drugs. Current and former presidents across the continent have challenged drug policies, saying that trafficking-related violence has only increased while the trade has not been stopped. In response, the United Nations has agreed to hold a session on global drug treaties for 2016.

Until now, the U.N. treaties have been strictly prohibitionist, preventing countries from changing course. But since 2012, two U.S. states and Uruguay have defied the treaties and legalized marijuana. An increasing number of European and Latin American countries, led by Portugal, have also decriminalized possession of small amounts of all major drugs, including heroin and cocaine.

Despite these developments, major challenges lie ahead in global drug policy reform. In big swaths of the Americas and Europe, we may soon see a legal market in marijuana, taking one important product away from the black market controlled by gangsters such as Guzman. But there is little appetite in any nation to legalize cocaine. In countries like Switzerland and Germany, different ways are being tried to deal with addicts, from giving prescription drugs to new rehabilitation techniques. These will not stop the illegal trade in narcotics, but they could reduce its size, which would be a positive step forward.

Finding realistic ways of reducing the black market in drugs is, of course, a difficult battle. But it is one worth fighting. If legalized marijuana and better treatment for hard drug addicts cut drug cartel profits by half, it could stop them from overwhelming communities, outgunning police and terrorizing citizens, as they do in chunks of Latin America today. It could turn gangsters back into a criminal problem instead of a national security threat.

This is not a criticism of the U.S. agents and Mexican marines who risked their lives arresting Guzman. They were upholding the current laws. Besides, gunmen fighting in the name of Guzman left a trail of blood and crying mothers to defend his billion-dollar narco empire. But to make a real change in the long term, we have to find ways of reducing the cancerous black market that drug consumers create in the United States and Europe, the biggest markets. Legalizing soft drugs such as marijuana and finding better treatment programs for harder drugs is the most realistic way of achieving this. Or 20 years from now, we may be writing about the arrest of another Latin American kingpin and citing tens of thousands more cartel murders in ghettos and villages across the continent. 

Ioan Grillo is a journalist and writer who has been covering Latin America since 2001. He is the author of the book “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency.” 

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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