On the 22nd of February, Joaquin Guzman, known as “El Chapo” and the most powerful drug trafficker in the world, was captured and seized by Mexican authorities, 13 years after escaping from a high security prison. Known as Mexico’s Osama Bin Laden, he had been pursued in a high-stake operation in conjunction with the US for weeks before being tracked down in a hotel in Mazatlan, North-West Mexico.
El Chapo and his notorious cartel, based in Sinaloa, have a lot to answer for in explaining the bloody drug war that has destroyed parts of Mexico over the past few years. Guzman, 56, faces multiple federal drug trafficking indictments in the US and is on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s most-wanted list. His drug empire stretches throughout North America and reaches as far away as Europe and Australia. Indeed, Forbes magazine even listed him as one of the world’s most powerful people- even ranking higher French President Francois Hollande.
Mexico’s violent drug war reached its escalation point in 2006, when the Mexican army was deployed to ease tensions between the cartels fighting over control of regions. The problem began playing out decades earlier, however. Given its geographical location, Mexico has long been used as a transit point for the smuggling of illegal drugs, immigrants and contraband destined for the US. During prohibition years in the states, alcohol was frequently smuggled over the American-Mexican border, but the onset of the illegal drug trade began when prohibition in America was abolished in 1933. As the market grew and grew, Mexican cartels evolved and began forming agreements with Colombian organizations to transport cocaine through Mexico to the US. This was made easier by the fact that, since Mexico is a major source of marijuana and cocaine, it already had sophisticated infrastructure in place to serve the Colombian traffickers. The fighting between rival drug cartels began in earnest after the 1989 arrest of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, who ran the cocaine business in Mexico. The violence has been crippling for Mexico, with over 106,000 people killed since the wars began.
But as all this developed, the Mexican government remained idle, ignoring the problem and allowing it to fester. This was until, in 2000, President Vicente Fox sent troops to Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas to fight the cartels. It is estimated that about 110 people died in Nuevo Laredo alone during the January–August 2005 period as a result of the fighting between the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels. The military efforts yielded little success. In spite of this, President Calderon, upon taking office in December 2006, deployed thousands of soldiers to conflict zones in an attempt to seize the cartels. Many say his government’s assault on drug cartels and arrest of kingpins actually fuelled the growth of Sinaloa and its major rival, the Zetas, which are now going head-to-head for lucrative territory.
The problem in addressing the drugs trade effectively in Mexico is two-fold. Firstly, the government in its current and likely future capacities cannot address the war, and future governments are bound by its havoc. Secondly, even if they were able to “end” the drugs war, the Mexico left in the aftermath would be politically and economically devastated, leaving the state volatile to cartels seizing power again.
Regarding the first strand to the issue, the government’s lack of both human and economic resources means that it is unable to gain enough intelligence on the whereabouts and operations of the cartels, limiting their capacity to respond to them. What’s more, the often poorly-trained security forces are engaged in bloody clashes with the cartels from which the drug lords often emerge victorious. And in the slim majority of cases where the authorities succeed in capturing cartel workers, the weakness of the justice system does not ensure that an impartial and independent judge will decide the case- threats and bribes from the leaders of cartels have influenced cases in the past. But even when a conviction is secured, this may do little by way of guaranteeing the safety of citizens- let us not forget that El Gapo was able to escape a “high security prison” before.
Moreover, when operatives in the cartels are arrested, it is not difficult to recruit new members as combatants. There are limited career options open to the youth of Mexico, high poverty rates and, in spite of government investment, poor schools, resulting in a large underclass of several million school dropouts who can neither read nor write. Such demographics make optimal recruitment conditions for the cartels.
But in terms of the second prong to the problem, we must consider the following: what would Mexico look like after the drug wars ended? It would require billions of dollars of spending by the Mexican government, and the escalation of an already fatal war, which would be disastrous both in terms of infrastructure and the cost of human life. This would lead Mexico in an even more volatile condition, more susceptible to threats from re-emerging or new cartels, and a government without the resources to respond to them. But the illegal drugs market is now so instrumental to the functioning of Mexico’s economy that its destruction would likely impoverish the state even further. The income from drugs in Mexico exceeds all other forms of foreign currency, including oil. So even in President Caldaron succeeded in his end goal, he would have a devastated economy to deal with.
Make no mistake- the arrest of El Chapo does not mean the war on drugs in Mexico has been won. It may be viewed as progress, of course. But given how the conflict has played out and shall do in the future, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this particular war cannot be won.