‘El Chapo’s’ capture: Is the mission really accomplished?

Editor’s Note: Don Winslow is the author of 19 books, including New York Times best-sellers and the recently published “The Cartel.” He won the Raymond Chandler Award in 2012. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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Don Winslow says the outlook is for more chaos and violence after the arrest of the drug lord

As long as Americans buy drugs and prohibit them, the drug lords will prosper, he says

CNN  — 

The recapture (or should we say the re-recapture, considering that he also “escaped” in 2001 prior to his 2015 “escape”) of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on Friday in Mexico brings up several intriguing questions.

One: Why now? Why was Guzman, the world’s most wanted fugitive, found after six months? While facts are still coming in that will shed more light on this, we have to believe that a deal was cut that made this successful raid possible.

Don Winslow

Guzman was in his native Sinaloa (where I predicted he would be after his escape), and reported to have been traveling around the state with a bodyguard of up to 100 gunmen, hardly an inconspicuous figure in hiding. The most likely scenario is that Guzman had lost the support and confidence of his partners in the cartel, and with it the political influence and power that protected him.

There were doubtless elements in the various Mexican police agencies and federal government that cooperated with Guzman’s most recent “escape,” allegedly from a much ballyhooed tunnel, and other elements who sincerely desired his capture. The latter appear to have won. But how and why?

Any organized crime figure, Guzman not excepted, survives only as long as he’s making other people money. Such extraordinary pressure was put on the Mexican government by the United States that, after six months, Guzman became a distraction that was hurting business. Did he become a liability that needed to be taken off the books? Has a deal already been made to anoint his successor? Guzman’s freedom likely lasted for exactly as long as this took to work out.

Why taken alive?

Two: Why was Guzman taken alive? Five of his gunmen were killed in the raid, six others were captured. Again, information is still coming in, but we do know the raid was conducted by the FES, Mexican Marine special forces that do not have a reputation of going to great lengths to take prisoners, especially not high-profile targets like Guzman. (The raid was assisted by American agencies, who doubtless provided intelligence and who have long trusted the Marines, and only the Marines, with such sensitive information.)

Again, a number of possibilities exist. Is the “fix” in, as it was the last two times Guzman was in prison and ran his organization from the inside? His first imprisonment was the correctional equivalent of a five-star hotel. He lived in luxury – prostitutes, movie nights, gourmet meals and parties. He had his own squad of bodyguards armed with baseball bats.

He waltzed out of his second imprisonment with an impunity that would be comical if it didn’t have such serious consequences. (The same people who ask us to believe he made a daring escape through that tunnel are the same people who ask us to believe that such a tunnel could be dug past an army post into a maximum security prison without anyone noticing.)

Did Guzman not go down fighting now because he believes there is still a possibility that he can do the same in his next prison? Does he still have sufficient connections to live comfortably behind bars and salvage his damaged position? Or was he not shot because there were orders to bring him in alive, because he is still of some value to someone?

Or do people still fear him and potential retribution for his death? (A cartel at one time associated with Guzman killed the entire family of a Marine who was killed in a raid that killed their leader.) Clearly a struggle is going on within both the Sinaloa cartel and its allies in the police and government. The deck is being reshuffled, and we’ll have to await the results of the next deal.


Three: What’s next for Guzman? Recall that Guzman’s most recent “escape” was prompted by renewed American pressure to extradite him to the United States. This is the worst fate a drug kingpin can suffer. There are no more parties, prostitutes or feasts, only 23 hours a day in a small concrete cell. No drug figure has ever been able to run his business from inside an American maximum-security facility.

Facing charges in California, New York, Illinois, Texas, Arizona and Florida, not to mention federal indictments, Guzman would die in prison, most likely in the Supermax facility in Florence, Colorado, where a number of his rivals now reside. Unless he were to cut a deal. But what sort of deal could he make? He can’t trade “up” in the drug world; the only information that Guzman could provide would be against Mexican police and politicians.

Mind you, this is a man who paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes over the course of his long career; he knows where the bodies are buried, information that American intelligence agencies would value.

For that reason, I don’t believe he will ever be extradited, despite some claims to the contrary. The former attorney general of Mexico vowed that Guzman would serve every day of his sentence in Mexico, and, after the embarrassment of his most recent “escape,” it is a point of national pride. It’s unfortunate that President Enrique Peña Nieto pronounced this as “Mission accomplished.” We have heard that phrase before, with a similar aftermath.

A vacuum – and violence?

Four: What’s next for Mexico? We’ll likely see the fracturing of the Mexican drug-trafficking power structure. While Guzman is a deeply evil man responsible for untold suffering and the deaths of thousands, and deserves to end his despicable life behind bars, his capture is not without its downside.

One plausible theory for his recent “escape” was that the government needed him to preserve the “Pax Sinaloa,” the relative calm and lessening of violence that occurred as a result of Guzman and his cartel winning a 10-year war for supremacy that took over 100,000 lives.

If, as it appears, Guzman’s reign has ended, it means there is no longer any “drug kingpin” in Mexico, leaving a vacuum that others will seek to fill. The short-lived Pax Sinaloa was a period of relative stability that may well now be replaced with chaos as other smaller cartels, once held under the Sinaloan thumb, seek to claim the top of the pyramid.

An Iraq analogy is unavoidable; we removed a brutal dictator in Saddam Hussein only to see al Qaeda, ISIS and other violent groups contend for power. The drug trafficking system in Mexico will now similarly splinter.

While it is possible the Sinaloa cartel will replace Guzman in a smooth transition and retain power, history tells us that Mexico will be in for more bloodshed as individuals and groups fight it out for supremacy and control of the lucrative smuggling routes. There will more chaos and violence.

Consequences for the United States

Five: What does it mean for the United States? Anytime a major “kingpin” is captured, we see it as a victory in the war on drugs. We could decorate a long wall with posters of former kingpins: Miguel Angel Gallardo, Carlos Lehder, Griselda Blanco, Frank Lucas, Benjamin Arellano-Felix, Pablo Escobar of recent “Narcos” fame, Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the former “Lord of the Skies”, Osiel Cardenas and now Joaquin Guzman. I indulge in a list because it’s instructive. Each of these captures was supposed to bring victory in the war on drugs and each of these victories has resulted in absolutely nothing.

Drugs are more plentiful, more powerful and more available than ever. That’s not what winning looks like. No offense to the brave people who captured Guzman, but this will have an identical result. Under his leadership the Sinaloa cartel flooded the American market with cheap black-tar heroin to undercut the pharmaceutical companies who make opiate derivatives such as oxycodone and Vicodin.

Mexican heroin is now cheaper and easier to buy than these pills, which is the driving force behind the ferocious heroin epidemic inflicting the United States. Do we seriously think the arrest of Joaquin Guzman is going to halt or even slow down the export of that heroin?

The Sinaloa cartel might miss a beat, but only a beat. And its competitors are even now trying to find a way to move in on that market. Guzman’s partner, possible successor to the cartel as well as his possible betrayer, Ismael Zambada, made his millions exporting methamphetamine and monopolizing the American market. Is he just going to stop?

As long as there are buyers there will be sellers, and not very far down the road we’ll be celebrating the capture of the next “Guzman,” someone who is already maneuvering his climb to the top of the drug pyramid.

Joaquin Guzman (I resist calling him “El Chapo” because the diminutive nickname makes him appear to be a colorful character rather than the mass murderer he is), deserves to pay for his sins, which are many and horrific. If this is the end of Guzman (still a doubtful proposition), I shed no tears for him, nor should anyone.

But let’s not delude ourselves that this is anything more than the capture of one admittedly horrible individual. As long as we continue to buy these drugs at the same time we prohibit them, we will continue to create and support the endless cycle of Joaquin Guzmans.

This is the same old thing, over and over and over again.

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