Mexico's president trumpets capture of drug kingpin 'El Chapo'

Wanted for more than a decade, Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman was captured Saturday by Mexican troops. US-Mexico cooperation played a key role in apprehending a notorious drug trafficker. 

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, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. A senior US law enforcement official said Saturday that Mr. Guzman, the head of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, was captured alive overnight in the beach resort town of Mazatlán. Guzman faces multiple federal drug trafficking indictments in the US and is on the Drug Enforcement Administration's most wanted list.

Mexico’s capture yesterday of one of the world’s most powerful drug lords, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, was a huge success for a government that is trying to overcome the country’s international reputation for entrenched organized crime, widespread lawlessness, and violence.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted the news, praising the Mexican Navy forces that arrested Mr. Guzman in an oceanfront condo in Mazatlán, less than 150 miles from Culiacán, the state capital where his Sinaloa Federation cartel is based.

The capture of the elusive trafficker also highlighted US-Mexico cooperation in the long-sensitive areas of law enforcement and intelligence sharing.

Announcing El Chapo’s arrest here Saturday, Mexico’s attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, spoke of the important role that collaboration between the two countries’ law enforcement agencies had played in the operation. It followed months of close US-Mexico cooperation, Mr. Karam said. He also noted that, in all, more than a dozen suspected traffickers have been arrested and dozens of weapons seized in a string of recent operations aimed at Guzman and his Sinaloa cartel.

Speaking in Washington, US Attorney General Eric Holder praised the arrest as a “landmark achievement.” But, mindful of Mexican sensitivities regarding overbearing American influence in Mexico’s internal affairs, US officials are quick to point out that Mexico, as a sovereign country, conducted its own internal law enforcement operation and that news reports of a “joint operation” against El Chapo weren’t accurate.

That said, it’s clear that the US Drug Enforcement Administration played a key role in tracking him down: Both Mexican and US officials said the operation was based on intelligence gathered and passed along by the DEA. The result was the capture of Guzman at his beachfront hideout without a bullet being fired.

Still, the fact that Mexican officials were willing to publicly laud their colleagues over the border is likely to be received well in Washington. 

Guzman had a $5 million bounty on his head in the US and had been sought by Mexican and American authorities for over a decade. Even as the leaders of other Mexican drug mafias like the Gulf cartel and the Zetas fell and were replaced, El Chapo remained untouchable.

Diversified trafficking operations

Of course, the capture of one of the Mexican drug trade’s legendary figures does not mean the demise of the business he developed. The Sinoloa cartel controls much of the cocaine and marijuana trade with the United States, and it has also diversified its operations into Europe and Asia. Under Guzman the cartel became so wealthy and so deeply entwined into the fabric of so many Mexican states that Guzman was ranked on the Forbes annual list of the world’s most powerful people.  

What El Chapo’s fall could portend, say specialists in organized crime and trafficking, is a resurgence of drug-related violence – either as his lieutenants fight to take control of his realm, or as other crime groups attempt to move in on the Sinaloa cartel’s territory.

“With Guzman now in custody, the remaining top bosses, along with several less-prominent leaders, will look to maintain the Sinaloa Federation’s control over Guzman’s network,” wrote the Texas-based security consultancy Stratfor. “This could spark a wave of violence throughout northwestern Mexico if internal shifts evolve into intra-cartel conflict.”

If El Chapo’s Sinaloa gang were to succumb to internecine fighting, that would most likely encourage rival crime gangs to try to move in on its lucrative turf.

And that would almost certainly mean even more violence in more parts of Mexico – and a greater challenge to Mr. Peña Nieto’s efforts to get the world rethinking its view of Mexico.

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