The recent capture of Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, is but the latest episode in the absurd, unending and media-driven spectacle of the drug war. El Chapo had topped the list of most-wanted fugitives ever since Osama bin Laden was killed. For more than two decades the Mexican authorities had tracked him. Twice, they sent him to maximum security prisons. Twice, he miraculously escaped.
But putting El Chapo back behind bars will do little to alter the reasons why a figure like him and an organisation like the Sinaloa cartel exist in the first place. His latest slip-up reportedly came in part as a result of him granting an interview to actor Sean Penn, who was put in contact with El Chapo by prominent Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. As the drugs kingpin pointed out to Penn, Mexico’s drug trade exists due to gruelling poverty and because there are so few opportunities for decent work. This is why, despite El Chapo’s capture, the drug trade and the cartels will remain intact.
Penn was not the only outsider to make contact. In 2012, filmmakers Guillermo Galdós and Angus MacQueen attempted to locate El Chapo as part of a film they were making for PBS. After months of research they managed to find El Chapo’s ranch and, though they never met him in person, his mother had the good grace to invite them to lunch to talk about her son. Galdós and MacQueen filmed Sinaloa cartel operatives boasting that they controlled the entire area. They appeared incredibly relaxed, despite the fact they were hiding the world’s most wanted criminal.
That the Mexican and US governments, with the billions of dollars, military might and intelligence-gathering capabilities which they have thrown at the drug war in Mexico, have apparently been unable to find Guzmán, should be hugely embarrassing. Penn and Castillo, after all, managed to make contact with the drug lord, and Galdós and MacQueen found his family home without any of those resources and did so in a matter of months, not years. Meanwhile, US and Mexican intelligence agencies appeared to be at a loss.
This points to what is an open secret in Mexico. All major criminals who evade capture do so with the active complicity of the police, the military, politicians, big business and the banking sector. Indeed, a coordinated and earnest strategy to reduce the power of organised crime in Mexico would focus on corruption of the police forces, the military and the political class.
Perhaps most importantly, it would also attack the financial structure of the cartels. As with all cartels, El Chapo’s Sinaloa Federation would be nothing without the cooperation of international banks.
In 2012, for example, British banking giant HSBC was fined US$1.9 billion for failing to put in place safeguards to prevent the laundering of at least US$881m of drug money, some of which came from the Sinaloa cartel. But unlike the blue-collar criminals of the drug trade in Mexico, none of the elite bankers from HSBC have thus far done any jail time.
So long as bankers launder and hide dirty money and dodge jail, there’s little reason to believe the media sensation of arresting one of the bad guys will change anything in a significant way.
The drug war distraction
On the other hand, El Chapo’s arrest provides the faltering presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto with a much-needed propaganda coup. His escape last summer humiliated the government and Peña Nieto is already one of the most unpopular presidents for decades – no small achievement in a country where the legitimacy of the entire political class is in question.
But Peña Nieto’s unpopularity is the symptom of a much wider malaise. His government rushed through hugely unpopular legislation which effectively sold off major public institutions to private companies. It has been mired in corruption scandals at the highest level and has been characterised by heavy political repression and secrecy, as the case of the 43 disappeared students illustrates with stark clarity.
While the capture of El Chapo provides something of a distraction from the critical issues facing the country, many Mexicans are infuriated by what they see as an inept military response to the growth of organised crime – a problem rooted in corruption, poverty, instability, ailing social services and infrastructure. Well over 100,000 people have been killed and a further have 26,000 disappeared during the recent years of the war on drugs in Mexico.
Though the president triumphantly announced “mission accomplished” following El Chapo’s arrest, the myriad problems facing Mexico are far from resolved.