In the early hours of Saturday, February 22, the Mexican government and security forces scored a huge success in the war against cartels: the arrest of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the leader of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel. It’s a huge success for Mexican security forces and a gold star in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration.
Guzmán,once declared byForbesas one of the richest men on Earth, was the effective ruler of a parallel narco-terrorist state covering large swaths of Mexican states. So far it is unclear whatspecific charges he will be trialedfor, or in which prison he will carry out his sentence – he’s currently in the Altiplano prison.
The prison that will ultimately host him is doubly important sincehe already escaped from one once. There is also the possibility that he will be eventually extradited to the U.S.
Moreover, another question that analysts are scrambling to figure out is how his capture will affect, in the short and long term, both the Sinaloa Cartel as well as the country’s other cartels.
For the time being, President Enrique Peña Nieto can add Guzmán’s capture to the list of major achievements under his leadership. Let us hope that the Sinaloa leader remains behind bars.
The operation to capture “El Chapo”
Surprisingly, the Mexican media has reported several details of Guzmán’s capture. The operation took place around 3-4 AM this past Saturday as Guzmán slept in a fourth floor suite of a somewhat upscale 27- floor building in Mazatlan, a city in the state of Sinaloa.
TheMexican dailyMilenioexplains that Mexican intelligence services, in cooperation with the DEA, detected that Guzmán had been staying in room 401 of the building for two days. (The role of U.S. security and intelligence agencies in Guzmán’s capture will surely be scrutinized for months to come.)
By 6:40AM both Guzmán and his bodyguard had been neutralized and arrested. The media has emphasized that not a single shot was fired to apprehend Mexico’s most wanted man, though some physical force was used by the marines who arrested him as he struggled to escape.
The captured leader of the Sinaloa Cartel was then taken to the Mazatlan airport, and from there he was airlifted to Mexico City. Finally, he was transported to the Altiplano prison via one of Mexico’s Policia Federal (Federal Police) helicopters.
The effects of his arrest
President Peña Nieto confirmed Guzmán’s capture via social media, tweeting: “I recognize the work of the security agencies of Mexico to capture [Guzmán] in Mazatlan.” He also started the hashtag #MexicoEnPaz(#MexicoInPeace).
The Mexican president’s aforementioned hashtag was created to stress that Guzmán’s capture is an example of the Mexican government’s initiatives to bring back stability and peace to the country. Whether these efforts will actually succeed is debatable. While Guzmán’s capture is certainly a commendable achievement, it is unclear to what extent it will affect violence within Mexico.
In an April 2010 interview with the Mexican magazine “Proceso,” Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, the Sinaloa cartel’s second in command after Guzmán, summarized the leadership structure of cartels.
“When it comes to the capos, jailed, dead or extradited – their replacements are ready” the cartel leader explained.
Indeed, a problem with these vast criminal networks is that even when a major leader is captured or eliminated, the cartel’s leadership structure is either flexible enough to select a new leader to maintain its cohesion, or it breaks apart into multiple smaller networks. There is just too much money to be made in drug trafficking and other crimes for new cartels not to appear.
A textbook example of a Mexican cartel surviving what should be a decapitating blow happened in July 2013, when the Mexican government captured another high-profile criminal:Miguel Angel “Z-40” Trevino, head of the Zetas Cartel. However, this has not hampered the Zetas, as new leaders have emerged.
Likewise, there are also cases of new cartels emerging from defunct ones. The Zetas themselves were originally the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, before splitting to become their own criminal entity. Similarly, the Knights Templar Cartel, Mexico’s third largest cartel (currently in a bitter war against vigilante forces in Michoacan), is itself a splinter group from the now defunct Familia Michoacana cartel.
Experts on Mexican security are participating in the debate of the Sinaloa cartel’s future: one of these specialists is Guillermo Valdes, former director of CISEN (a Mexican intelligence agency). He declared toMileniothat Guzmán’s capture means that the Sinaloa cartel has lost “50% of its leadership.” He explained that while he does not think the Sinaloa Cartel will disappear, it has been severely weakened, and it remains an open question whether the aforementioned Zambada, the cartel’s second in command, will be able to keep Sinaloa united.
As a final point, in aJuly 2013 commentary for VOXXI, I discussed the capture of the aforementioned Z-40 of the Zetas. At the time, I highlighted the importance of having state-of-the-art maximum security prisons to keep high-profile criminals behind bars. Tragically, Mexican prisons have a tendency to allow for prisoner escapes – Guzmán himself escaped from jail in 2001.
After the huge success for Mexican security forces now they need to manage the Mexico’s penitentiary system to keep El Chapo behind bars this time.