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The Re-Capture of El Chapo: What Happens Next?

Note: This article was published on February 23, 2014, after the second capture of El Chapo. We are featuring it today, following the third capture, because we believe the scenarios are the same. The one possible change is the degree to which El Chapo will be able to operate from prison, under the “In or Out” scenario. Particularly if he is extradited, he will have to relinquish more power and management to others in the cartel. — LC

The press and Mexican government announced that yesterday at 6:40 in the morning, Mexican security forces captured the nation’s most wanted drug lord.

Led by the Mexican Navy, agents and troops moved in on a beach condominium in the resort city of Mazatlan at 4 AM. The bloodless siege yielded the leader of the Sinaloa cartel and 13 other individuals said to be related to cartel operations, according to Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam, from a Navy hangar.

Oddly, the first news came not from the Mexican government or media, but from the US agency Associated Press, shortly before 10 AM. The Mexican government waited hours until El Chapo had reportedly been transported to Mexico City, before going public. El Chapo is now being held in the high-security prison of Altiplano, in Mexico State.

Also oddly, President Enrique Peña Nieto did not appear publicly to announce the capture, nor did he appear the rest of the day. Some seven hours after the arrest — he tweeted:

I salute the labor of Mexico’s security institutions, in achieving the arrest of Joaquín Guzmán Loera in Mazatlán.

La Jornada reports that a press conference planned at the Sec. of Government for 11:15 was cancelled half an hour before. The reason is generally assumed to be that the government wanted to absolutely confirm identity to avoid an error like in June of 2012, when the supposed son of Guzman, Alfredo, was captured and it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.

At the time of this writing (8:00 AM Sunday) the Office of the Presidency still has not issued a statement or posted on its web page.

This is a big change from the past, when major arrests were paraded through the media and heralded as turning points in the endless drug war. Why so low-key this time, precisely when it regards the most wanted figure of all? The Sinaloa Cartel that El Chapo leads is recognized as being by far the largest and most powerful in the country, and according to some experts, the world. We may see an increase in the hype after Peña Nieto returns from his week-end break.

Scenarios all add up to more drug war

A number of scenarios open up now, none of which imply an end to drug war violence or trafficking. They are:

“The hydra effect”

In Greek mythology the hydra, a sea serpent, grew three heads for every one cut off. The Sinaloa Cartel has been reorganizing and no one believes it hasn’t prepared for this day. It is probable that a successor has already been chosen and trained in taking the reins of the organization.

“In or Out, sigue siendo el rey”

It’s important to recall that the cartel did not fall apart the first time El Chapo was in prison and in fact business went on as usual. It is common for drug lords to dispense from prison. The exploits of El Chapo while locked up–sumptuous parties, privileges, expensive foods and drugs, sex, etc.–are legendary. We could see a replay of a simulated “punishment” that at once justifies the drug war and takes the heat off what has frequently been characterized as the favored cartel.

“Manufactured fracture”

The end result of the bust could be a fracturing of the Sinaloa Cartel, such as happened before with the Gulf Cartel and La Familia. Some security strategists favor this result because it theoretically reduces the threat to the State as the groups are broken into smaller entities as happened in Colombia. However, based on previous experience in Mexico this is the worst scenario in terms of the impact on public safety and violence.  The brutality and lack of centralized control often common among the splinter groups ends up being more of a threat than the powerful parent cartel. My take is that this will not happen, at least not in the short term,  to the Sinaloa Cartel.

“Confirming disaster”

The take-down of El Chapo would help to increase Congressional support for the drug war in Mexico, giving both Peña Nieto and Obama wide berth to spend more on the militarist model at a time when it is severely questioned. By confirming this model–widely regarded as failed despite headline busts–the violence will increase, more taxpayer dollars will be diverted from social needs to war, and war contractors and the DEA will reap increased income and support. As everyone celebrates the capture of a powerful and ruthless drug lord, this would actually be very bad news for both Mexico and the United States.

The scenarios do not include that this capture will destroy the power of the Sinaloa Cartel, reduce violence and restore law and order in Mexico. Unfortunately, that scenario is more than unlikely.

Trying Times

The “most wanted man in the world”, according to the TV meme, is just as wanted in custody as he was when he was at large. The head of the DEA in Chicago has announced he wants El Chapo tried there. There are multiple extradition requests out for El Chapo in the United States. The US was closely involved in his capture and had offered a $5 million dollar reward for information leading to his capture. The Mexican Attorney General recognized the use of U.S. intelligence in the arrest. So far there are no confirmed reports of U.S. agents at the scene.

Meanwhile the Mexicans want to see him tried in that country as a face-saving measure. The concern, of course, is that he will “escape” (an act usually involved collusion by authorities at some level) as he did in 2001.

Reactions

The response of the Mexican press has been a celebration of the capture as a military police operation but skepticism regarding the long-term impact. News media has been combing Twitter and past articles for details regarding the bust and bios of El Chapo’s colorful life. Corridos, the typical Mexican ballad, have already been written and posted on youtube.

La Jornada used a headline CAYO (He fell!) and noted on its front page that the the U.S. broke the story. They ran a companion piece with views on why the capture will not end drug war violence.

El Universal emphasized that not a single shot was fired and noted in a related article that El Mayo Zambada, el Chapo’s close associate in the cartel, is expected to be his successor.

US Attorney General Eric Holder quickly came out with a statement saying:

Today’s apprehension of Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman Loera by Mexican authorities is a landmark achievement, and a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States.  Guzman was one of the world’s most wanted men and the alleged head of a drug-running empire that spans continents.  The criminal activity Guzman allegedly directed contributed to the death and destruction of millions of lives across the globe through drug addiction, violence, and corruption. We salute the Government of Mexico, and the professionalism and courage of the Mexican authorities, for this arrest.  We are pleased that we were able to work effectively with Mexico through the cooperative relationship that U.S. law enforcement agencies have with their Mexican counterparts.  We look forward to ongoing cooperation, and future successes.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson congratulated the Mexican government and implied that the bust will increase security on the US-Mexico border:

Secretary of Homeland Security Johnson stated: “The operation led by the Mexican government overnight to capture Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman Loera is a significant victory and milestone in our common interest of combating drug trafficking, violence and illicit activity along our shared border. We congratulate our Mexican partners in this achievement and we will continue to work collaboratively with them to ensure a border region that is safe and secure, for the communities and citizens of both our nations.”

Both used the occasion to reaffirm collaboration in the war on drugs.

Why now?

El Chapo has managed to escape many times in the past. If one believes that both governments often knew where he was and that he was allowed to operate freely for many years, as I do, that question is why now? Why capture him at this particular time?

There are many possible answers to that question, and the question is intimately related to what will happen next. Several Mexican experts have expressed their opinion that the timing and strategy of the arrest came from Washington.

The drama of the bust of a legendary crime figure will continue to play out. As the week begins, more stories on the government’s response, investigations into the U.S. role, what will happen with a trial and/or extradition, and any indications of the response of the Sinaloa Cartel will continue to fill the pages and air waves for days. Few people appear to feel relief or a sense of greater safety, and in many places, residents fear destabilization of the situation following the arrest. One businessman in Sinaloa was quoted in the New York Times as saying “It’s bad news for Mazatlán. He (Guzmán) was keeping the peace.”

It will take some more time and thought to tackle the question of ‘why now’ and  ‘what next’. For now, it’s a major political feather in the cap of both for the Mexican and U.S. governments. Tomorrow, all indications of what happens with the “kingpin strategy”of arrests indicates that Mexico will be experiencing more, not less, bloodshed in the days to come.

It will be important for citizens to follow up on the results of the bust and investigate the behind-the-scenes political motivations. These undoubtedly exist, but it will require gathering more evidence and perspectives before speculating.

More articles by:

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

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