Will Mexico's capture of 'El Chapo' improve security?

One cartel king behind bars is reason to celebrate. But the outlook is complicated.

Adriana Gomez/AP
This house was one of several connected by tunnels that drug boss Joaquin Guzman used to evade authorities.

After the euphoria of El Chapo’s arrest, the reality: one drug lord behind bars does not solve Mexico’s entrenched security issues and violence – even if he was one of the world’s most wanted criminals.

Saturday’s remarkably undramatic capture of Joaquín Guzmán, otherwise known as “El Chapo” or "Shorty," will do nothing to address the challenge of Michoacán. The Western Mexican state to the south of Mr. Guzman’s Sinaloa and the site of a worrisome battle between the Knights Templar cartel and grassroots self-defense forces was, until last weekend, the focus of Mexican security forces.

This high-level arrest won’t have an impact in Veracruz, either. The Gulf coast state has witnessed a dramatic spike in kidnappings and extortion already this year, and 10 journalists investigating state government corruption have been killed in the three years of the current governor’s administration.

Nor is it likely Guzmán’s detention will reduce a trend that by some calculations has Mexico City winning the dubious title of kidnapping capital of the world.

Guzmán ­– who evaded arrest for more than a decade through connections and a level of public support in his home turf of Sinaloa state – was a leading symbol of Mexican impunity. Despite what his arrest won't change in the immediate future, his capture in a modest oceanfront condominium in Mexico’s Pacific coast resort town of Mazatlan was indeed a big victory on several levels.

Taking down the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, which Guzman developed into one of the world’s most sophisticated and ruthless illicit-trade organizations, was a huge win for Mexican security forces. It was a testament to Mexico’s Marines, who carried out the operation. It shined a light on the close working cooperation between the Mexican Navy and the US Drug Enforcement Agency – a relationship with a level of trust often lacking at other higher levels of government.

Guzmán’s fall will no doubt be a feather in the cap of Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto. That’s true even though President Peña Nieto has de-emphasized the war with Mexican narcotraffickers that his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, pursued relentlessly.

For now, Guzmán’s arrest is being hailed as progress. However, if it results in a resurgence of violence, it could end up refocusing attention on the security problems Peña Nieto has tried to downplay as he pursues his priority economic reforms.

“Everyone has been fairly optimistic about Peña Nieto’s reforms, but there’s a dark side to this picture and it’s the security question,” says Jorge Chabat, an expert in Mexico’s drug wars and security issues at Mexico City’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.

Since Peña Nieto took office in December 2012, “his defining approach has been, ‘Let’s not talk about the security problem, let’s focus on economic reform,’” says Mr. Chabat.

It may be, however, that the fall of Shorty could force a refocusing on Mexico’s security challenge.

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