Why the Capture of Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman Matters to the US
It is a safe bet to assume that most Americans are aware that Mexico has been waging a very bloody war against drug cartels for decades. There is also a good chance that some names that have emerged from this war and made it into the U.S. news cycle will ring familiar. None is more likely to fit the bill of Mexico’s drug war figurehead as Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera. But why was he so important to Mexico’s drug trade, and why does it matter than he’s being extradited for prosecution in the U.S.?
Drug trafficking in Mexico got its start in the 1860s when Chinese railroad workers brought with them the opium poppy. Opium-derived morphine and heroin were the first narcotic substances brought illegally across our southern border at the turn of the century, and then in earnest during World War II. As the hippie generation of the 1960s generated more demand for marijuana, producers and distributors in Mexico were only happy to oblige, but the trade was still small scale. Joaquin Guzmán came of age in a rural part of Sinaloa state—known as the cradle of Mexico’s drug trade—during this heyday.
Growing up under the tutelage of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo—known as “The Godfather” of Mexican drug trafficking—in Culiacán, and later Guadalajara, assured Guzmán’s place in the kingpin hierarchy. When Félix Gallardo had to dismantle his empire in the late 1990s, he offered Guzmán a large chunk of the Guadalajara cartel’s territory along Mexico’s Pacific coast. This slice, over the years, would eventually grow into Mexico’s largest, wealthiest, and most powerful drug cartel—the Sinaloa Federation.
Cartels in Mexico more or less operated with impunity under the watch of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI), which ruled Mexico as a virtual dictatorship. When the PRI fell in the elections of 2000 to the National Action Party (the PAN), Mexico’s leadership started to exert some force against the cartels, who started fighting back with a vengeance in 2006 after newly elected President Felipe Calderón sent the Mexican army to fight the battles the police were incapable of winning. Guzmán was a fugitive at the time, having been arrested in Guatemala in 1993 and incarcerated in Mexico. However, he escaped in a laundry cart in 2001 and took back control of the Sinaloa cartel.
El Chapo, a nickname for “Shorty” given his stature of 5’7”, quickly became the most wanted criminal in the Western Hemisphere. He was even controversially listed in Forbes magazine repeatedly as one of the world’s most powerful and wealthy men. Although current President Enrique Peña Nieto vowed to change the drug war strategy upon taking office in December 2012, he wanted Guzmán as badly as anyone else. Peña Nieto got his wish in February 2014 when military forces captured Guzmán in the resort city of Mazatlan. After the capture, Peña Nieto angered the U.S. and confused many when he refused to extradite Guzmán to the U.S. to stand trial on 22 drug trafficking charges. He claimed his government was capable of keeping El Chapo put.
‘El Chapo’ Escapes – Again
However, Peña Nieto ate his words when Guzmán escaped again in July 2015 through a very elaborately constructed tunnel. It was easily the most humiliating moment for an administration that had failed to significantly curb cartel activity and associated violence. Fortunately, military forces recaptured El Chapo six months later in early January 2016, and this time, Peña Nieto agreed to the drug lord’s extradition to the U.S. But why is that important to the U.S. and the grand scheme of the drug war?
It has been widely acknowledged that taking Guzmán out of the picture will have little bearing on the Sinaloa cartel’s operations. However, the U.S. can at least reasonably guarantee that Guzmán won’t escape prison again and reenter the fray—especially if he gets sent to the ADX Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. Guzmán also carries in his head very valuable intelligence that he would ostensibly trade into U.S. authorities for a lighter prison sentence.
While meaningless in practice, one cannot discount the psychological impact his capture and successful prosecution has in promoting the drug war message. Arresting Guzmán is easily the Mexican government’s biggest “get,” and trying him successfully will be promoted as a win on the U.S. side of the border. In the meantime, the drugs will continue to flow across the border, and the blood will continue to flow in the streets of Mexico.
Sylvia Longmire is a border security expert and Contributing Editor for In Homeland Security and Breitbart Texas. You can read more about cross-border issues in her latest book, Border Insecurity: Why Big Money, Fences, and Drones Aren’t Making Us Safer.