According to the State Department, 90 per cent of all cocaine smuggled into the US still enters the country from Mexico. And global production of cocaine reached a record 1140 tonnes in 2016, up 25 per cent from the previous year, according to a 2018 report by the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime.
Donald Trump has suggested this vast tide of narcotics could be staunched by building a wall along the south-west border, but extensive testimony at Guzman’s trial – from traffickers – indicated that a wall would have little effect: most illegal drug loads cross the border legally at official checkpoints, not in remote stretches where a barrier would stop them.
Spotlight on Sinaloa
By any definition, Guzman’s three-month trial was a monumental endeavour, the culmination of more than a decade of investigative work by US federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents who acted in concert with several foreign governments in Latin America. Like Joseph Valachi’s congressional testimony in 1963, which revealed to the public the inner workings of the Mafia, Guzman’s prosecution detailed his cartel’s operations and demystified an outlaw who for decades enjoyed a kind of folk-hero status around the world.
“The trial put a big spotlight on the power of the Sinaloa cartel, giving the public insight into how it really operates and functions,” said Raymond P. Donovan, special agent in charge of the DEA’s New York office who played a leading role in Guzman’s final capture. “Prior to the trial, people had heard the legend of El Chapo, but now they have the reality: the violence, the manipulations, the drug trafficking – what we, in law enforcement, have known for years.”
But several security experts said that convicting and imprisoning the kingpin for the most part sends a symbolic message.
“Catching Chapo is important because it is a signal but nothing else,” said Christian Ehrlich, who works for Riskop, a risk analysis firm in Monterrey, Mexico. “In terms of logistics, there may be a superficial change, but these organisations know how to adapt very quickly.”
Even before Guzman’s arrest in 2014 at a hotel in Mazatlan, Mexico, and his eventual recapture in 2016 after a prison break, the approach of hunting for and prosecuting top drug criminals – the kingpin strategy – did not halt violence or drug trafficking in the country. In recent years, collaboration between the US and Mexico succeeded in killing or jailing many of Mexico’s best-known narco lords, including Guzman’s cousin, Alfredo Beltran-Leyva, and the heir apparent to his empire, Vicente Zambada Niebla, along with dozens of their lieutenants – all with little measurable effect.
Instead, fragmented groups have battled over smuggling routes and moved into new businesses, leading to a record 33,341 killings in Mexico last year. “In the same territory there are small and large organisations,” said Eduardo Guerrero, a security expert for Lantia Consultores, a Mexico City-based consulting firm. “The large try to absorb the small, and the small try to remain independent. This is very unstable.”
US authorities say the Sinaloa cartel’s most notable current rival is the Jalisco New Generation cartel, which Guzman once used as his front-line soldiers in a war against another rival group, Los Zetas. After breaking from Guzman several years ago, Jalisco New Generation started branching out into activities such as extortion, kidnapping, migrant smuggling and gasoline theft – a crime that has cost Mexico as much as $3 billion a year, government officials say.
The man regarded as the Jalisco leader, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, known as El Mencho, is still at large in Mexico, but faces an indictment filed in 2014 in Washington that closely resembles the one used to try Guzman. Indeed, the two prosecutors named on El Mencho’s case file served on Guzman’s trial team.
‘Dirty’ at the top
Donovan, who runs the DEA’s New York office, said the capture and prosecution of Guzman was “the first of its kind” because so many law enforcement agencies – the FBI, the DEA, Homeland Security Investigations – mostly worked together and “put their egos aside”.
“It’s the model for how to go after people moving forward,” he said.
But some former law enforcement agents wondered why the federal government never sought to leverage the overwhelming evidence it had against Guzman to persuade him to co-operate and provide information on the cartel’s relationships with politicians, bankers and lawyers – or about his former partner Zambada, who has never been arrested. (Guzman’s lawyers have said he was never offered a plea deal and might have refused one even if it was offered.)
“Twenty years ago, the unwritten rule was you don’t get anyone at the highest levels to co-operate because it’s dirty,” said Derek Maltz, a former director of the DEA’s special operations division.
Maltz said that extraditing kingpins to the US was “the one thing that works”. But he also noted that with the cartel’s advancements in communications, its increasingly sophisticated financial systems and the role it has played in the opioid crisis, “maybe we should start thinking about creative co-operation deals. The same old ways just aren’t working that well.”
Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which works to reduce the harms of both drug misuse and drug prohibition, said that while the war on drugs had led to prison terms for kingpins like Guzman, it had also yielded waste, violence, crime and corruption throughout Latin America.
“Latin American leaders have said they want to explore forms of regulation for certain drugs,” Sanchez-Moreno said. “That’s a conversation they have earned a right to have, and the US should encourage and participate in that conversation.”
Guzman had his own somewhat fatalistic ideas on the subject in the famous interview he gave to Rolling Stone before his final arrest in 2016. He was asked if he felt responsible “for the fact that there are so many drugs in the world”.
“No, that’s false,” he said. “Because the day I don’t exist, it’s not going to decrease in any way at all.”
The New York Times