Over the past 11 weeks, federal prosecutors unveiled the inner workings of Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera’s drug empire.
Tales of elusive tunnel escapes, of corruption potentially reaching the highest levels of the Mexican government, and a sprawling and violent international drug network—details so dramatic they could come straight out of a blockbuster film, or at least a Netflix series.
For prosecutors and international law enforcement agencies that have been chasing the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel for years, a jury conviction may be hailed a victory.
And that’s just what experts fear.
“If “Chapo“ Guzmán is, in fact, convicted, law enforcement will — to some extent deservedly — celebrate an important victory in their efforts to combat drug trafficking,” David Shirk, director of the Justice in Mexico project, said in an interview with The Crime Report.
“But what I worry about is that the lesson they’ll take away is that ‘We have to go after the next ‘Chapo’ Guzmán.’”
That, said Shirk, is the exact opposite of what authorities should be doing.
For decades, U.S. and Latin American counter-narcotics units have employed what’s been dubbed the “Kingpin Strategy,” in which authorities target and often extradite to the United States the leaders of major drug organizations like “El Chapo“ or Colombia’s Pablo Escobar.
The strategy was first created and used in the 1990s by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to wage war against Colombia’s Cali and Medellín cartels. In 2006, Mexican President Felipe Calderón adopted the method and soon it became the heart of U.S. and Latin American strategy for its “war on drugs.“
That strategy was glamorized by movies, news coverage—and now, Shirk fears, the spectacle of Guzmán Loera’s New York trial has only fed the cycle of violence.
Following the capture of “El Chapo,” the administration of former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto boasted that in his more than five years in office, 107 of the 122 high-ranking members of organized crime groups were arrested or killed.
‘Things Are Not Changing’
Yet violence is worse than ever in Zulia Orozco’s home of Tijuana, Mexico, a city straddling the California border and home to at least five drug trafficking organization locked in a violent power struggle.
“On New Year’s Eve, while you were hearing fireworks, I was actually hearing bursts of gunfire from AK-47s,” said Orozco, a human rights professor at Baja California State University who has lived in the barrios of Tijuana for 15 years.
“That’s the thing. Things are not changing.”
Or rather, they’re changing, but in the wrong direction, she said.
In 2017 and again in 2018, Mexico’s murder rate hit an all-time high, jumping 15 percent between the two years.
Tijuana, a key smuggling route and Mexico’s murder capital, logged more homicides than any other city in the country in 2018 at 2,502, or an average of nearly seven killings a day.
“This past year, 2018,” she said, “I had to see a suicide by a boy who couldn’t support his life here practically where I live, I had to see two homicides on the street on my 10-minute walk to work, I had to see burnt corpses, I had to see chases and assassinations literally on my block.”
While the goal has been to cripple crime organizations in places like Mexico and Colombia, taking out these drug lords has instead fragmented the cartels’ power, said Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight for the Washington Office on Latin America.
Tijuana’s Power Vacuum
In no place has that been more apparent than Tijuana, where factions of former narco-led groups like Guzmán Loera’s Sinaloa cartel have broken off in the wake of the power vacuum and continue to wage war on each other.
Now, with the likely conviction of the notorious criminal leader, said Isacson, U.S. drug authorities will be searching for the next great white shark, when in reality there will be hundreds of circling piranhas.
“That’s just not how it works anymore; it really has become splintered, fragmented, and more violent as a result,” he said. “If we’re going to waste resources trying to head off the next maximum drug lord of Mexico, there’s just not going be one.”
In recent years the U.S. has made attempts to shift its international drug policies.
In Colombia, the U.S. has invested $10 billion since 1999 on its “war on drugs,” an operation the country’s former president called “perhaps more harmful than all the wars in the world combined.”
Despite the steady flow of money, Colombia’s cultivation of coca, the crop producing cocaine, reached an all-time high in 2017.
In 2018, the Washington said it was shifting from its hardline tactics to a focus on economic development, something Orozco said Tijuana desperately needs.
In Mexico, the recent election of leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador who, in his oath of office, promised “radical” change in the country’s cartel-fueled corruption and mass violence. In his campaign, López Obrador was a fierce critic of former the militaristic approach taken by presidents Calderón and Peña Nieto to Mexico’s “war on drugs.”
As Guzmán Loera’s trial draws to a close in the New York courtroom, the fear is that the thrill of locking up the drug lord known for his two escapes from prison and the tunnels used to evade authorities may bring the hunt for another kingpin roaring back.
This time, in a country already experiencing levels of violence unseen since the peak of the Sinaloa cartel’s power.
“It really begs the question whether taking out an individual like ‘Chapo’ Guzmán, the entire extradition and trial, has really done any good,” Shirk said.
Megan Janetsky is a freelance writer based in Colombia who has written for Foreign Policy, USA Today, Poynter and others. Readers’ comments are welcome.