The meaning of El Chapo’s arrest

March 5, 2014

The capture of Joaquín Guzmán Loera was touted as a major blow to the Sinaloa cartel--but Héctor A. Rivera thinks the arrest raises more questions than answers.

MEXICO'S MOST powerful drug lord, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo Guzmán," was arrested by the Mexican Navy on February 22 in the coastal city of Mazatlán in the state of Sinaloa. The arrest came a few days after El Chapo Guzmán successfully evaded capture in the city of Culiacán by escaping through the city's sewer system.

Following the arrest, Mexican politicians immediately started congratulating themselves via social media. "Cae Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán"--"El Chapo Guzmán, captured"--read the headlines in Mexican newspapers. Conversations everywhere began with: "They got Chapo!"

In the following week, every detail of the military operation was chronicled in a media spectacle that included minute-by-minute recreations. With Guzmán under interrogation, authorities say they are uncovering properties, money-laundering businesses and associates of the drug lord.

But in fact, the arrest of El Chapo raises more questions than it answers. There continues to be widespread skepticism about whether this arrest is really a turning point in the war on drugs, as the authorities insist--or simply another moment in the ongoing tragedy that has engulfed Mexico.

Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias El Chapo Guzmán
Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias El Chapo Guzmán

EL CHAPO Guzmán rose through the ranks of the drug trade in the state of Sinaloa, cultivating contacts and gaining influence under the tutelage of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, alias "El Padrino" (The Godfather). After Félix Gallardo's arrest in 1985 Guzmán became the leading operative of the Sinaloa cartel. But in 1993, he was arrested and put in prison after the Sinaloa cartel was implicated in the shooting of the archbishop of Guadalajara.

El Chapo Guzmán was transferred to the Federal Center for Social Rehabilitation No. 2 in Puente Grande outside of Guadalajara. While at Puente Grande, El Chapo continued to run his drug empire, by bribing prison officials from the inside and by paying off politicians outside prison walls. With the threat of extradition to the U.S. looming, he orchestrated an escape from Puente Grande in a laundry cart in 2001.

Over the next decade, El Chapo became Mexico's undisputed top drug lord, even appearing on Forbes magazine's list of most powerful people several years in a row--he was identified as the tenth richest man in Mexico in 2011.

His rise to power was closely linked to the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN), which ruled Mexico from 2000-12. Particularly during the launch of the war on drugs by former President Felipe Calderón, the Sinaloa cartel was allowed to operate with limited intrusion from the state. While cocaine seizures at the border plummeted during the PAN presidencies, drug-related murders increased from 2,119 in 2006 to a whopping 12,358 in 2011.

As Helen Redmond reported at, the U.S. increase in military aid to Mexico, including helicopters and drone aircraft, only served to exacerbate the violence. Thus, while Calderón pursued the enemies of the Sinaloa cartel in his drug war, the Sinaloa cartel consolidated its power in Mexico and abroad.

Since El Chapo's arrest, the relationship between the Sinaloa cartel and the PAN has come under close media scrutiny. Furthermore, court documents from an ongoing trial in Chicago published the Mexican newspaper El Universal reveal that the Sinaloa cartel had been receiving preferential treatment from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in exchange of information leading to the arrest of other cartel leaders and members. As Time magazine pointed out, the DEA strategy, apparently carried out behind the back of the Mexican government, represents a violation of international law, not to mention human rights.

El Chapo's arrest, however, seems to indicate that the arrangement between the Sinaloa cartel, the Mexican government and the DEA has come to an end. As retired DEA agent Phil Jordan revealed in an interview with the Hispanic news outlet Univision, the arrest comes as a surprise since it is alleged that El Chapo contributed hefty financial support to the electoral campaign of Mexico's current President Enrique Peña Nieto. Following Jordan's interview with Univision, however, three public statements released by the DEA, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico and the Mexican government were quick to deny his "foolish" accusations.

Meanwhile, popular opinion in Mexico is divided as to the importance of El Chapo's arrest. Most people express cynicism about the government's purported fight against corruption. In some cases, there have even been public demonstrations protesting against El Chapo's arrest and in defiance of local governments. While these demonstrations were small and located in El Chapo's home state of Sinaloa, they involved several thousand people.

It's highly unlikely that such narco-protests will continue to appear. However, the grievances they represent focus on the economic conditions that lead Mexicans to take up work in the drug economy. The demonstrations reflect the legitimacy of narco-power in Sinaloa and among large sectors of Mexican society.

Despite the capture of El Chapo, Mexico's structural problems that make the drug trade an attractive option aren't going away. Meanwhile, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada will most likely take over as strongman for the Sinaloa cartel. The dominant strategy thus far pursued by the U.S. and Mexican authorities to fight the war on drugs is a failed strategy

The question that remains is why now? The Mexican Navy that captured Guzmán in late February is the same Mexican Navy of recent years. Could it be that the government is getting rid of its strongest opponents, in the same way that it got rid of Elba Ester Gordillo, head of the 1.4 million-strong teachers union? Some analysts speculate that the arrest of El Chapo is part of a strategy to create a more business-friendly climate for foreign investment in light of the privatization of the oil industry. Still others believe the arrest was orchestrated between El Chapo and the government.

Whatever the answers to these questions, things haven't changed that much in El Chapo's home state of Sinaloa. In the last week, journalists from the newspaper Noroeste have received numerous death treats because of their investigative articles that have tried to parse out the web of protection which allowed El Chapo Guzmán to operate freely for the last 13 years. Despite the death threats, Noroeste journalists continue reporting on the case.

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