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The conviction this week of the Mexican crime lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera was one of the most visible victories for American law enforcement since the war on drugs began in the 1970s, a triumph over a cartel leader who survived — and thrived — for decades on his business skills, brutal violence and bottomless bribes to Mexican officials.
And yet on Jan. 31, the same day that the trial of Mr. Guzmán — known to the world as El Chapo — ended in a Brooklyn federal courtroom, border officials in Arizona made an announcement: They had just seized the largest load of fentanyl ever found in the United States, a haul that was hidden in a truck carrying cucumbers on its way through the Nogales port of entry, a crossing that Mr. Guzmán’s organization, the Sinaloa drug cartel, has traditionally run for years.
The fentanyl seizure — enough for 100 million lethal doses — was a clear signal that even after the hard-fought task of convicting Mr. Guzmán on drug conspiracy charges, American federal agents still have far to go in their attempts to dismantle Mexico’s infamous cartels. The verdict against the kingpin on Tuesday, may, in the end, have little lasting impact on either Mr. Guzmán’s group or the wider effort to stem the flow of drugs into the United States.
Even without its former leader, the Sinaloa cartel is a major threat and maintains among its competitors “the most expansive footprint in the United States,” according to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s most recent assessment of the drug trade. While Mr. Guzmán’s guilty verdict disrupted the relationships and smuggling agreements the kingpin forged in his career, federal agents say his empire remains intact and is now being run by his sons and his wily longtime partner, Ismael Zambada García.
Drugs, of course, have never stopped coming across the border. In 2016 and 2017, the years when the crime lord was most recently arrested and sent for prosecution in New York, Mexican heroin production increased by 37 percent and seizures of fentanyl in places like Nogales more than doubled, the D.E.A. has said.
According to the State Department, 90 percent of all cocaine smuggled into the United States still enters the country from Mexico. And global production of cocaine reached a record 1,140 tons in 2016, up 25 percent from the previous year, according to a 2018 report by the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime.
President Trump has suggested that this vast tide of narcotics could be stanched by building a wall along the southwest border, but extensive testimony at Mr. Guzmán’s trial — from traffickers themselves — 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.
By any definition, Mr. Guzmán’s three-month trial was a monumental endeavor, the culmination of more than a decade of investigative work by American 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, Mr. Guzmán’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, the special agent in charge of the D.E.A.’s New York office who played a leading role in Mr. Guzmán’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.”
[El Chapo was convicted. Here’s what happens next.]
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 organizations know how to adapt very quickly.”
Even before Mr. Guzmán’s arrest in 2014 at a hotel in Mazatlán, Mexico, and his eventual recapture in 2016 after a prison break, the approach of hunting for and prosecuting top drug criminals — the so-called kingpin strategy — did not halt violence or drug trafficking in the country. In recent years, collaboration between the United States and Mexico succeeded in killing or jailing many of Mexico’s best-known narco lords, including Mr. Guzmán’s cousin, Alfredo Beltrán-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 murders in Mexico last year. “In the same territory there are small and large organizations,” 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.”
The American authorities say the Sinaloa cartel’s most notable current rival is the Jalisco New Generation cartel, which Mr. Guzmán once used as his front-line soldiers in a war against another rival group, Los Zetas. After breaking from Mr. Guzmán 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 Mr. Guzmán. Indeed, the two prosecutors named on El Mencho’s case file served on Mr. Guzmán’s trial team.
In a remarkable — if coincidental — bit of timing, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the president of Mexico, two weeks ago reiterated his administration’s reluctance to embrace the kingpin strategy, even as a prosecutor was delivering the government’s summation at Mr. Guzmán’s trial in Federal District Court in Brooklyn.
“We haven’t arrested capos, because that isn’t our main function,” Mr. López Obrador said at a news conference, referring to cartel bosses. “The main function of the government is to guarantee public security. The strategy of operations to arrest capos is over.”
Historically, prosecutions of kingpins like El Chapo and El Mencho have done little to affect the viability of their former organizations. In 1997, a federal judge in Houston sentenced Juan García Ábrego, a boss of the Gulf cartel, to 11 life terms in prison. At the time, the lead prosecutor on the case said of the cartel: “If it’s not the end, it’s near the end. They’re mortally wounded.”
But more than 20 years later, the Gulf cartel remains alive in Matamoros, Mexico, directly across the border from Brownsville, Tex. At least one former prosecutor who worked on the investigation that led to Mr. García’s indictment said he had no regrets for going after kingpins.
“There was a time when they felt invulnerable, impervious, that they were above any kind of sense of justice,” the former prosecutor, Kenneth Magidson, said. “That sense of imperviousness has been removed from the equation. Not only are they touchable, but we’ve touched every one of them.”
Mr. Donovan, who runs the D.E.A.’s New York office, said the capture and prosecution of Mr. Guzmán was “the first of its kind” because so many law enforcement agencies — the F.B.I., the D.E.A., Homeland Security Investigations — worked together and, with notable exceptions, “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 Mr. Guzmán to persuade him to cooperate and provide information on the cartel’s relationships with politicians, bankers and lawyers — or about his former partner, Ismael Zambada, who has never been arrested. (Mr. Guzmán’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 cooperate because it’s dirty,” said Derek Maltz, a former director of the D.E.A.’s special operations division.
Mr. Maltz said that extraditing kingpins to the United States 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 cooperation deals. The same old ways just aren’t working that well.”
Banks that have laundered cartel money have largely escaped prosecution. In 2012, the United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn — the same agency that prosecuted Mr. Guzmán — reached an agreement with the British bank H.S.B.C. that allowed it to avoid criminal charges even though it was found to have funneled more than $880 million in drug profits — much of it from the Sinaloa cartel. Under the agreement, H.S.B.C. forfeited more than $1.2 billion, paid $665 million in fines and put in place “structural changes” to its global operations.
María McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, the 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 Mr. Guzmán, 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,” Ms. Sánchez-Moreno said. “That’s a conversation they have earned a right to have, and the U.S. should encourage and participate in that conversation.”
Mr. Guzmán 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.”