The capture in February of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel (Mexico’s leading drug-trafficking organisation), was a major coup for the government of the president, Enrique Peña Nieto, and helped to refute criticism that he had been soft-pedalling security strategy since taking office in December 2012. However, his capture may result in increased violence in the short term as the Sinaloa cartel fights with its rivals to maintain supremacy.
Mr Guzmán has been Mexico’s most-wanted man since his escape from prison in 2001. His arrest, in the coastal town of Mazatlán, is for Mr Peña Nieto what the killing of Osama bin Laden was for the US president, Barack Obama. Mr Guzmán’s ability to evade arrest while continuing to operate in his heartland of the Sinaloa state was a reproach to successive governments and became a symbol of the limitations of Mexico’s ongoing security strategy. The former president, Felipe Calderón (2006-12), launched a major military-led security strategy in December 2006, but never succeeded in coming close to Mr Guzmán, despite successes in capturing senior figures of other cartels.
Making real progress on security?
For Mr Peña Nieto, Mr Guzmán’s arrest is an opportunity to demonstrate that he is making headway in Mexico’s longstanding struggle against the violence and crime caused by the existence of the powerful drug cartels. When he took office, he pledged to refocus the security strategy, directing it more towards the burgeoning crimes of violence and extortion that are increasingly having an impact on the lives of civilians. As part of this, he announced the creation of a new national gendarmerie, numbering 10,000 personnel, which would aim to avoid the problems created by having local police forces that can easily be intimidated or corrupted by the drug gangs.
In addition, Mr Peña Nieto indicated that the emphasis would move away from targeting leading cartel members and towards disrupting operations, implying a criticism of the lengthy manhunts undertaken under the Calderón administration. However, the arrest of Mr Guzmán suggests that Mr Peña Nieto has continued this strategy of targeting the leaders, especially given the arrest in July 2013 of Miguel Ángel Treviño, the head of the violent Los Zetas cartel. This is likely to be due to pressure from the US, which is keen to ensure that the shift in emphasis does not reduce the effectiveness of the counter-crime effort.
The US angle
The success in capturing Mr Guzmán indicates that Mr Peña Nieto may maintain this strategy, which delivers high-profile successes in front of the public while also aligning with US objectives. Capturing Mr Guzmán was also a major target for the US authorities, which have already requested his extradition in order to face charges of drug-trafficking in the US. Whether to extradite Mr Guzmán or not will be a major decision for Mr Peña Nieto. Technically the former should serve out the remaining 12 years of his existing 20-year sentence before being extradited, while he is also likely to receive a further long sentence if tried in Mexico.
However, keeping Mr Guzmán in prison would be a test for the Mexican authorities; he escaped with suspicious ease in 2001 and has since extended his network of high-level corruption. The risk of keeping him in Mexico, despite the public relations benefits of a high-profile trial, would be that he would escape again, which would severely undermine Mr Peña Nieto’s claims of progress in his security initiative. Extraditing Mr Guzmán to the US may therefore prove the best way of safeguarding this security advance.
Shifting strategy in the Sinaloa cartel
Despite the enormous symbolic importance of Mr Guzmán’s arrest, the impact on the ground may be initially limited. He has been on the run for many years and so day-to-day running of the cartel has often been carried out by trusted lieutenants. Of these, the most senior is Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, viewed as a close associate of Mr Guzmán and a major player within the cartel network. Although Mr Zambada may not become a long-term leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, given that he is 66 years old, he may provide a strong interim leadership that will maintain the cartel’s dominance while a new leader emerges.
This is particularly important, as rival cartels such as Los Zetas and Los Caballeros Templarios (the Knights Templar) will be looking to take advantage of any weakness within Sinaloa to seize control of territory and take out rivals. This is likely to spark a series of conflicts between Sinaloa and its rivals, particularly in areas such as the key trafficking routes that lead from northern Mexico to the US. In addition, some factions of the Sinaloa Cartel may look to split off from the parent organisations (as happened a few years back with the Beltrán Leyva brothers), with mid-ranking leaders looking to take over some parts of Sinaloa’s operations on an independent basis.
The new leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel therefore faces the prospect of both internal and external conflict, not to mention sustained pressure from a Mexican security apparatus reinvigorated by the capture of Mr Guzmán. Mr Zambada, as the assumed new leader, will need to strike back quickly against any perceived incursions in order to demonstrate the Sinaloa cartel’s undiminished power.
Mr Peña Nieto may therefore find that Mr Guzmán’s arrest actually results in increased, rather than decreased, violence, as the cartels struggle to adapt to the new balance of power. The challenge for the president is to portray this as a temporary situation, within an ongoing narrative of progress against the drug cartels. This will be difficult to sell to an increasingly conflict-weary Mexican public, but the sight of the notorious “Chapo” in handcuffs may help to restore confidence in the authorities’ ability to fight back against the cartels.
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