Monday, August 20, 2012

VOXXI: Could (Should) US Eliminate El Chapo?

Could (Should) US Eliminate El Chapo?
W. Alex Sanchez
Research Fellow, Council on Hemispheric Affairs

August 20, 2012
Originally published in: 
According to the Mexican daily Proceso, the U.S. government aims to eliminate the renowned leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Per the report, ”the Pentagon elaborated the plan several months ago but it’s now at a standstill because it would only be carried out by American troops,” a displeasing prospect for the Mexican military. According to the Mexican media, outgoing president, Felipe Calderon, may have already shown support for this plan.
While the sources of this report remain unclear, the idea of eliminating El Chapo is, unsurprisingly, already generating analyses and discussions as exemplified by a recent piece on The Wired article discusses the likelihood of the operation taking place as well as the pros and cons. In addition there are comparisons between a theoretical operation against El Chapo and the operation that eliminated Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
The goal of this commentary is not to assess the validity of the claims by Proceso, but rather to discuss the provocative idea of whether or not only El Chapo can be captured or eliminated in an Osama bin Laden-style operation by the U.S. In addition, the ultimate question that needs to be asked remains: Has El Chapo become too big to be captured alive?
The Obvious Concern
An obvious initial concern relates to U.S. collaboration with the Mexican government should they find El Chapo and either (A) attempt to capture him or (B) eliminate him. Of course, a realistic possibility is that El Chapo could somehow be informed about the operation via his contacts in the government and escape.
There is some logic to this sentiment as there are several proven instances of corruption and incompetence in the Mexican government and military. In May 2012, four Mexican army generals were detained for ties with drug cartels. According to a report by the New York Times “the accusations against the third general […]include that he ignored a tip by American drug agents about an imminent airplane delivery of a drug cartel’s cocaine in 2007.” To compare the situation to the Bin Laden Operation, when President Barack Obama received enough credible intelligence information to send Seal Team Six (the military unit that was deployed to eliminate bin Laden), he did so. However he did not inform the Pakistani government of his decision, concerned that bin Laden would be tipped off by friendly Pakistani officials, like members of the ISI.
Should the U.S. military intervene into Mexican territory without informing Mexico D.F. about such an operation, this would be a grave insult that could put into jeopardy binational relations.
The Issue of Domestic Politics
Additionally, there are some peripheral distractions that may play a role in the decision, though they arguably shouldn’t. The U.S. is preparing for presidential elections on November 4, and this would, arguably, be a bad time for the administration to involve the country in another military operation, even a brief one like a raid. If the raid should fail and U.S. troops fall, this could potentially hurt the president’s re-election aspirations, as the Republican Party will use any failure as proof that the incumbent Democratic administration is weak regarding national security.
When it comes to Mexican politics, timing may also be an important factor. President Calderon will leave power in December and, if El Chapo is found, the outgoing head of state may want a military operation that he can take credit for in order to (to put it bluntly) “leave with a bang.” This is also important because it is believed that the incoming president, Enrique Pena Nieto, may have a more relaxed, laissez faire, attitude toward actively hunting the leadership of the Cartels. Such allegations, if they turn out to be true, would mean that the U.S could expect little help regarding trying to track down El Chapo during the incoming Pena presidency. It’s certainly an open question if members of the EPN administration will be more or less open to possible Cartel bribery than previous administrations.
Finally, it is difficult to predict how a successful operation (or a failure) would affect the way Mexican-America voters cast their ballots in the upcoming U.S. elections.
The Precedents
The stories of several prominent criminal figures and their pursuits by different governments provide precedents for the El Chapo case. The most obvious and relevant precedent would naturally be the raid on the bin Laden compound in Pakistan. Whether the Al Qaeda could have been taken alive during the raid is debatable as details remain classified, but one can muse that, if he had surrendered, the subsequent trial would have been a media circus, not to mention a security problem both during and after (inevitably) bin Laden was found guilty and imprisoned.
But besides bin Laden there are other precedents of high profile criminals that were “too big to be captured.” For example, Peru holds individuals like Abimael Guzman, the leader of the insurgent group Sendero Luminoso, in maximum security prisons. Guzman’s group, which has carried out a deadly war against the Peruvian government and society since the early 1980s, is consequently culpable for tens of thousands of deaths. He’s currently serving a life sentence. Sharing a cell next to the former guerrilla leader is former Peruvian dictator Alberto Fujimori, who is serving a 25-year old sentence for being the mastermind of a number of massacres by government-organized death squads.
Meanwhile, in Panama there has been great controversy over the fate of General Manuel Noriega, who ruled the country in the 1980s and is known for his ties to drug trafficking as well as the CIA. He spent 17 years in a Miami prison and then served additional jail time in France. There was great concern when he was eventually extradited back to Panama whether he would become a destabilizing force, though this hasn’t happened (yet). He is currently in a jail in his homeland and there has been discussion about whether he should be freed due to his failing health, as it is believed he may have a brain tumor.
The New Pablo Escobar?
But apart from the aforementioned examples, including bin Laden himself, there is a Latin American precedent that can be looked at regarding far-reaching drug barons: Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellin Cartel during the 1980s. This author was recently interviewed for a documentary entitled “Uncensored,” which “recounts the lives of journalists during the most violent years of Colombia’s history.” Part of the documentary will revolve around Escobar, who could be described as the El Chapo of the 1980s.
Escobar’s major fear was that he did not want to be extradited to the U.S. to face jail time. He fought the Colombian government, surrendered, and went as far as building his own detention center in which he spent just over a year before he escaped. On the run, the Colombian government (with heavy aid from U.S. intelligence agencies) hunted him ruthlessly. Occasionally, he tried to surrender, but the Cesar Gaviria administration refused to negotiate with Escobar again. In other words, it had become clear that he was too powerful, too violent and too unreliable to be captured, and if he was, he could not be locked up in Colombia. And since extradition wasn’t an option (a 1991 Colombian Constitution forbade extradition), the only option left was the elimination of Pablo Escobar.
Escobar was ultimately shot to death by a special unit of the Colombian police with, by even the loosest association, U.S. intelligence help. Will this be El Chapo’s ultimate fate? To be eliminated either by a combination of U.S.-backed Mexican forces like Escobar or by American commandos on their own like bin Laden? Either option presents its own set of controversial issues but the larger question remains, has El Chapo become too much of a powerful and dangerous drug baron, like Pablo Escobar in his own time, to be captured? The Colombian kingpin’s life and fate, more than bin Laden’s, presents an important precedent.

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