Why El Chapo’s Capture Is a Beginning, Not an End

The U.S. is eager to extradite, but Mexico needs to dispense justice on behalf of Mexicans

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Eduardo Verdugo / AP

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican navy marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City, Feb. 22, 2014.

It wasn’t just that they got him; it’s also how they got him.

Mexican navy commandos, working in tandem with U.S. law enforcement officials, arrested the world’s most wanted drug lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, in a drab mid-rise condo in the Pacific resort of Mazatlán early last Saturday morning. He was reportedly in bed with a woman, and didn’t even have time to reach for his nearby AK-47. The security army he usually moved around with was nowhere in sight; there was no epic last stand, not even a single shot.

(MOREHow Captured Mexican Drug Lord ‘El Chapo’ Turned Chicago Into His Home Port)

Rather than the romanticized, untouchable capo of narco-culture lore, “El Chapo,” the head of the Sinaloa Cartel whom Forbes has listed on its annual rankings of billionaires, seemed like a middle-aged man tired of running, hiding away in a decidedly unglamorous building favored by middle-class Mexican families and Canadian retirees. Where’s the telenovela or narcocorrido in that? The forces pursuing Guzmán had nearly captured him earlier in the week in his hometown of Culiacán, before he fled into a tunnel, and many of his lieutenants had been rounded up in recent weeks. American law enforcement’s tracking of cell phone conversations among Guzmán’s cronies proved crucial to the operation.

(MOREHow Mexico’s Police Caught ‘El Chapo’)

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the atmospherics — the anti-climactic, outright boring atmospherics — surrounding Guzmán’s capture.  Mexican public opinion has long considered Guzmán (who escaped once before from a maximum-security prison in Mexico, allegedly in a laundry bin) a near-mythical figure capable of out-smarting, out-spending and out-gunning the government, especially in his native state. Every aspect of the drug lord’s capture punctures this image, and helps to shift perceptions about the cartels’ power (whose power is in some measure derived from their ability to intimidate society) relative to that of the Mexican state. Decreasing violence in many of the drug war’s hot spots, and impressive wins by law enforcement against the notoriously violent Zetas cartel along the eastern Gulf Coast have also contributed to these shifting perceptions.

For President Enrique Peña Nieto, enjoying a protracted honeymoon early in his second year in office as a result of an impressive series of reforms he has passed through the Congress with the support of opposition parties, the capture of Guzmán is a significant victory that puts to rest any lingering questions about whether he shared his predecessor Felipe Calderón’s commitment to take on the cartels. He clearly does, though he has smartly downgraded his personal identification with the fight. Calderón came across as obsessed with his crusade against the cartels and seemed to talk about little else in his six years in office. In contrast, Peña Nieto (whose Party of the Institutional Revolution ruled Mexico for most of the 20th Century and took back the presidency in 2012 after a 12-year absence) understood that merely by changing the topic he could alter how people perceive the scope of the problem. Since taking office 14 months ago, Peña Nieto has made his obsession the package of transformative reforms he pushed through Congress — on education, energy, trusts and so on — and delegated the drug violence (and the messaging around it) to his security team, signaling to the Mexican people that he (and they) had bigger worries. His government’s subsequent triumphs against the various cartels only seem magnified by the fact that they haven’t been his top priority.

No one is pretending that the drug trade will be disrupted overnight because of the Sinaloa Cartel CEO’s capture. Of all the trafficking organizations, Sinaloa’s was the most sophisticated and businesslike, with a global supply chain and a well-oiled distribution network throughout the United States. But for Mexicans, exhausted from eight years of horrific violence triggered by the federal government taking on the cartels, and the cartels fighting against each other for trade routes and market share, disrupting the flow of drugs northward is not the main objective. They simply want an end to the spectacular violence that until recently made cities like Ciudad Juárez and Monterrey, and states like Tamaulipas (and now Michoacán) nearly ungovernable.

Mexican public opinion has little appetite for waging an unconditional war to completely wipe out the drug trade (assuming that were even possible). That is seen as a fool’s errand, or at the very least an errand done for Americans eager to outsource the fight to Mexicans. The move by some U.S. states to decriminalize drug use has further reinforced widespread disgust in Mexico at the idea of Mexican policemen, soldiers, and small-town civic leaders being killed to prevent Americans from lighting up.

The Peña Nieto administration’s frontal assault on the Zetas of the Gulf Coast and its dogged pursuit of Guzmán should be seen as an effort to reassert the supremacy of state power (an effort admittedly aided by the capacity built up during the Calderón years) — less with an eye towards necessarily driving all drug traders out of business than with an eye towards dissuading these organizations from terrorizing the population with violent crime. Peña Nieto can’t come out and say this too explicitly, but given the choice of ending the drug trade or ending violence, he’d probably settle (as would most Mexicans) for the latter. It’s not a matter of making deals with bad guys, as conspiracy-mongers love to suggest, but of setting priorities.

Conventional wisdom around organized crime (we’ve all seen the canon of mobster movies) suggests that violence and mayhem increase when the established head Mafioso is taken out, as underlings retaliate and take each other on in bloody turf battles. It’s not clear, though, whether this will happen in Sinaloa. Mexico’s cartels have already had their brutal turf battles over the last decade, and if Guzmán’s successors are as rational as reports suggest, they would be well-advised not to ratchet up the violence, and hope that the Mexican state’s fury will be focused on continuing the fight against the Zetas and bringing the central state of Michoacán (currently besieged by another cartel) under control.

The acknowledged role of the U.S. government in the capture of Guzmán is also significant, and should put to rest concerns that the Peña Nieto administration was radically rolling back the level of cooperation with American agencies that Calderón’s team had embraced. Upon taking office, Peña Nieto’s team was reportedly surprised by how embedded American officials were across a number of Mexican agencies, and they moved to consolidate and coordinate the bilateral exchanges in one office. Washington at first worried that this reflected a lessened appetite to fight the cartels, but even before the success of this operation, U.S. officials had been assuaged that the changes reflected an internal reorganization of Mexico’s security apparatus, and were not driven by a desire to end American involvement in the effort.

The Mexican government has proven it is far from powerless in the face of these world-class mafias, that it can hunt down and overpower their chiefs. The greater challenge for Peña Nieto now is proving to the Mexican people, and to his northern neighbor, that Mexico’s judicial system is capable of trying, and incarcerating for good (in such a manner that he can no longer pull strings behind the scenes) someone as powerful as Guzmán.  It is on these fronts where Mexico has yet to demonstrate that it is a democracy with a resilient and entrenched rule of law.

Prosecutors across the United States are lining up to demand that Guzmán be extradited to face trial in their jurisdictions, and plenty of people on both sides of the border find this a desirable prospect — the best guarantee that Guzmán is in fact decommissioned, locked away for good (remember, he’s already escaped a Mexican prison once) and that he potentially gives away his trade secrets.

But that is not the best long-term solution for either nation. The impulse to extradite drug kingpins to the United States (in cases where the bulk of their crimes took place in Mexico) is akin to the impulse in this country to send terrorist suspects off to Guantánamo. It’s essentially a surrender, a recognition that the system can’t handle such cases.

In Mexico, sadly, that’s often been the case; the impulse is rooted in reason. But that has to change for the country’s successes against the cartels — and against the impunity of the powerful, more broadly — to have lasting meaning. Mexico needs to dispense justice on behalf of Mexicans. The likes of “El Chapo” Guzmán can’t only appear to be defeated and diminished on the day of their apprehension, but forever afterwards as well.

This article first appeared in the Weekly Wonk.