Unless you have been completely off social media and have not seen any news reports you are aware that the Sinaloa cartel’s leader, Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman Loera was arrested by Mexican Marines and US law enforcement last Saturday, February 22, 2014 in Mazatlán. According to the news reports, the US law enforcement contingent consisted of the Marshals Service and the DEA. The reports that have trickled out so far suggest that Chapo Guzman had been located and was being pursued for a several weeks.
Much speculation is ongoing currently as to what this means for the Mexican cartels and for the Sinaloa cartel specifically. The thing about the cartels is that they are loosely-based organizations that are very dynamic and fragmented with the singular goal of making money. The old-style monolithic organization under the control of one family has been eroding in recent years and the primary cartels have fragmented into various smaller more nimble drug traffickers. Chapo Guzman was the last of the centralized cartel leaders. His arrest is the end of the Mexican cartels dominating the drug trade and is the start of the fast-paced smaller units each fighting for control of the market however none having the capacity to dominate like Guzman did. The new dynamic of the cartels is that they are composed of smaller groups with ever changing loyalties dependent on the strength of the leadership holding the larger group together.
In this case, it is my opinion that it is too early to conclude if, and how the Sinaloa cartel and its supporting subgroups would evolve. However, Guzman’s second in command is unlikely to grab the reigns of the empire and thus each opportunistic cell will seek to control their dominion. I believe the Sinaloa cartel will cease to exist and instead fragment into smaller components each seeking control of smaller plazas.
Guzman’s capture though is a significant victory for Enrique Peña Nieto’s government for many reasons. Among them is the notion that impunity is in retreat in Mexico and that US-Mexico bilateral cooperation is effective and beneficial to both countries. This comes in the heels of Peña Nieto’s push to reform Mexico’s antiquated natural resource revenues and educational system. That the arrest is but a few days after the North American Summit benefits both Barak Obama and Peña Nieto’s call for closer economic ties. Economically Mexico is gaining on Brazil for dominance of the Latin American economy and is expected to become the largest exporter of automobiles to the US later this year. The capture of Chapo Guzman only strengthens Mexico’s economic upswing provided that drug violence remains stable or is further eroded.
However it is important to understand that the drug trade will not be impacted as the cartels are individual compartmentalized units intent on making money. About the only immediate impact the arrest of Guzman is a shifting of power within the cartels. How well they adjust to the void left by Guzman will determine the violence generated by his arrest.
In the El Paso/Cd. Juárez plaza, I expect nothing significant to occur immediately. There is intelligence that suggests Guzman’s cartel had wrestled control of the plaza away from the Juárez/Linea cartel a couple of years ago. If this were the case, the Juárez/Linea cartel might attempt to regain some control of the plaza. An increase of violence in Juárez in the next few months would tend to support the notion that the Sinaloa cartel had taken control of the El Paso/Juárez plaza. There might be an uptick of violence as the Sinaloa cartel further disintegrates and the smaller gangs realign in response. However, Mexico is moving away from being the home base of the drug cartels and instead is returning to being the transit point for the drugs on the way to the US market.
In the last few months cartel activity has increased significantly in other Latin American countries such as Guatemala and Honduras evidencing that the cartels were being pressured out of Mexico and into other countries. At the same time the cartels have opened up other revenue sources for their drugs in Australia and Europe, in other words diversifying their markets. This also serves to empower the smaller limber organizations and thus ending the era of a centralized top-to-bottom organization.
For El Paso, I believe that the conspiracy sealed in blood will remain intact and unaffected because such a conspiracy is an accommodation between lower level echelons to keep violence in check for political and economic reasons. Chapo’s capture has nothing to do with diminishing the drug trade and everything to do with the public’s perception of impunity run amok. As I have argued before, Mexico’s strategy has been to assert state sovereignty over the cartels and too make it too expensive for them to remain based in Mexico. It has never been about eradicating drug trafficking. There are many indicators that suggest my argument is valid as evidenced by the cartel operation sightings in the other countries and the new drug revenue markets.
Simply stated, the market for illicit drugs is too huge to effectively shut it down. What Mexico wants to do and is accomplishing effectively is keeping the cartels from basing operations within Mexico, although it is understood that drug trafficking through Mexico will continue as the 2,000 mile US-Mexico border is porous enough into the largest drug-market in the world. At the same time, Mexico seems to have been effective in avoiding the Columbia-affect of lost sovereignty over parts of its country in order to keep violence in check.
The Chapo operation is significant in his bloodless capture because it reinforced Mexico’s sophistication and professionalism in carrying out this type of operation without the headlines of a dysfunctional shot-them-all expected from operations of these types. Chapo’s handcuffed parade before the cameras exposes the fraud that the mystic created around him is an illusion. What it clearly showed is that Chapo Guzman is nothing more than the criminal that he is. Had he died in a gun fight the mystic would have been left intact. Instead the images of him on his way to prison have replaced the mystic with the reality that he is a criminal under the control and authority of the Mexican state. More importantly, the operation signals a clear partnership of equals between the US and Mexico in coordinating bilateral security initiatives beneficial to both countries. It is clearly a victory and one that was started under the Felipe Calderon administration and concluded under the Peña Nieto administration further demonstrating that Mexico is an intact Democracy in full control of its sovereignty contrary to the many who opined that Mexico was a failed state not too long ago. Mexico did this with dignity and self-reliance in partnership with its northern neighbor.