El Chapo arrest: The end of celebrity kingpins in Mexico?

Guzman's legendary criminal activity inspired songs and even a soap opera. It's an act few may be able to follow in Mexico, as two administrations have eliminated almost all top druglords.

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.

InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Patrick Corcoran's research here.

The arrest of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman – whose outsized legend hogged the limelight and resources – means the government can get down to the real business of fighting crime.

Part of Mr. Guzman's legend was based on reality. From the time of his escape from prison in 2001 until his arrest on Feb. 22, Guzman dominated Mexico’s organized crime like no other. Much of this was operational: he turned the Sinaloa Cartel into Mexico’s most notorious group, built links to suppliers and retailers in far-flung countries like Malaysia and Australia, and started gangland feuds that rattled virtually the entire nation.

But Guzman’s relevance was also a product of the myth that surrounds him, as he was a celebrity trafficker in the tradition of Pablo Escobar and Amado Carrillo, the famed "Lord of the Skies." He dominated Mexican media coverage more than virtually all political figures, even becoming the subject of a soap opera earlier this year. (InSight Crime is not immune; we have some 70 articles that touch on Chapo.)

He appeared (with great controversy) in the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest, which led to the label of “billionaire kingpin.” Guzman was arguably the foremost emblem of modern Mexico, in which organized crime emerged as the principal challenge of the democratic era. 

When Mexico, under Felipe Calderóon, began its frontal assault on organized crime in 2006, Guzman became the ultimate trophy. But the central focus of the plan, dubbed the kingpin strategy, was based on a false premise that arresting or killing men like Guzman would cripple the trafficking groups, which would allow the government to impose their authority over the organizations and thereby limit the violence. While many disagreed with the logic, former President Calderón gave his tacit endorsement to the strategy, publishing in 2009 a list of the 37 most-wanted capos.

To be fair, in terms of actually getting the kingpins, the strategy has been successful: Calderón captured or killed 25 of the 37 on his list by the time he left office; Guzman is one of the last of this disappearing breed of celebrity criminals in Mexico. What's more, although President Enrique Peña Nieto has disavowed his predecessor’s focus on kingpins, both he and Calderón have overseen a wave of arrests that have seen almost all of the most infamous traffickers either captured or killed.

To cite just a few of the top ones who have fallen since 2009: Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal and Arturo, Alfredo, and Carlos Beltran Leyva, of the Beltran Leyva Organization; Miguel Angel Treviño and Heriberto Lazcano, leaders of the Zetas; Nazario Moreno and Jose de Jesus Mendez, of la Familia Michoacana; Ezequiel Cardenas and Jorge Costilla, erstwhile leaders of the Gulf Cartel; and Ignacio Coronel and Vicente Zambada, of the Sinaloa Cartel. 

Following this wave of takedowns, only a handful of capos with any degree of national fame remain: Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, Juan Jose “El Azul” Esparragoza, Hector Beltran Leyva, Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, and Vicente “El Viceroy” Carrillo. The first two are Guzman’s lesser known partners, the latter three lead organizations that are shells of the former selves.

None of them, in any event, are likely to appear in Forbes or spawn their own soap opera in the near future. Indeed, with Chapo’s demise, it appears as if the era of celebrity capos in Mexico is coming to an end. Guzman’s heirs are likely to adopt a lower profile, and Mexico’s government is unlikely to allow another drug trafficker to achieve such cult status.

To be sure, one of Peña Nieto's first acts was to forbid the perp walk, thus taking the "protagonism" away from the traffickers. It is fitting that Guzman's mini-perp walk may be the last one we will ever see during this administration.

This shift has antecedents in Colombia, where the 1990s saw the death and arrest of the old line capos like Pablo Escobar and the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers. The implosion of the Cali and Medellin Cartels begot a new era of lower-profile trafficking organizations, as well as the incursion of armed groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries into the industry.

On the whole, this shift was positive in Colombia and likely will be so in Mexico. Peña Nieto has been eager to reduce the role crime plays in global perceptions of Mexico. It has so far been working pretty well (see recent cover of Time magazine).

Guzman’s arrest will aid that effort, just as the stereotyping of Colombia as an anarchic narco-state has given way to a more nuanced conception. Moreover, the reduction of impunity is a vital step in Mexico’s attempts to shift the balance of power away from drug trafficking groups. It is becoming less likely that government agents will be cowed by criminal figures of mythical stature, because the latter group no longer exists. 

However, homicides remain more than double the rate than when Calderon took office, and other crimes, such as kidnapping and extortion, are worse. In sum, the kingpin strategy did not remove the public security challenge, just as it did not in Colombia even though Escobar was killed and the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers were arrested; Colombia remains among the more violent countries in the world. On the contrary, now that the obvious villains have largely been removed from the scene in Mexico, the challenge actually grows more complicated.

Clearly new capos leading new organizations, different in their scope and their ambitions, will arise to replace Guzman and today’s Sinaloa Cartel. Colombia’s Urabeños and Rastrojos are not the Cali and Medellin Cartels, but they are major sources of insecurity nonetheless.

Moreover, rather than a handful of obvious targets to check off a short list, Mexico’s security policymakers now must confront an endless list of minor to-dos, which are collectively far more daunting than the cohort of infamous capos hiding in mountain lairs or in beachside hotels.

Insecurity in Mexico, as in much of Latin America, is a product of many interrelated factors, such as institutional decay, lack of education and economic opportunity, low tax rates, limited faith in government, and insufficient checks on corruption. The US drug market simply creates the possibility of massive profits stemming from these pre-existing problems that are organic to Mexico. Guzman exploited all of these in one way or another. 

While arresting him is a positive step, addressing the factors that allowed for his emergence is the work of generations. It requires political will and creativity, but also patience and support from the society at large. The arrest of Guzman and other celebrity capos occupying an inordinate amount of government attention will allow for more work on this constellation of other issues, but it actually does rather little to advance the broader cause. 

It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that now that Guzman has been arrested, the real work can begin, but only a slight one.

– Insight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Find all of Patrick Corcoran's research here.

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