The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘El Chapo’ is contained. The drug war is not.

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The man who came to embody the horror of Mexico’s drug trade was sentenced to life in prison in a New York City courtroom on Wednesday. In his decision, the U.S. judge overseeing the case argued the scale of the crimes meant no lighter sentence was possible. “The overwhelming evil is so severe,” U.S. District Court Judge Brian Cogan told the courtroom.

Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, better known by his nickname “El Chapo,” now ranks among history’s most notorious criminals. He was a central figure in Mexico’s drug trade for decades; during the quarter century he led the Sinaloa Cartel, it reaped more than $14 billion from the sale of drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana.

Guzmán was, as President Trump would put it, a “pretty tough hombre.” He was ruthless, personally ordering torture and murder. He was cunning, escaping from two maximum-security prisons in Mexico, in 2001 and 2015. But he was also vain: His recapture in 2016 came after a meeting with actor Sean Penn that authorities say tipped them off to his location.

Since his extradition to the United States in 2017, Guzmán has been held in solitary confinement. He has lashed out at what he sees as unfair treatment. “The U.S. is not better than any other corrupt country,” he said on Wednesday. But through his trial and its tales of gory violence, excess and corruption, his legend is bigger than ever: his daughter launched an “El Chapo” clothing line this week to capitalize on his fame.

There’s good reason to be glad that Guzmán will spend the rest of his life behind bars, away from the limelight. “From now on, El Chapo will only see his jailers, his lawyers, his family on some occasions, and the doctors who will have to take care of him when his health inevitably declines,” security analyst Alejandro Hope wrote for El Universal. The next time the public hears about him, it may be at his death.

That “may come as a relief,” Hope predicted. But for both Mexico and the United States, there’s still little sign of relief from the violence that Guzmán represents.

Guzmán may be gone, but the cartels are not. Gladys McCormick, an expert in Mexico’s political violence at Syracuse University, told Today’s WorldView in an email that while there are no longer any major drug lords to focus media or political attention on, cartels have shifted to a horizontal leadership akin to multinational corporations.

They have also expanded their businesses beyond drugs, McCormick explains, into other spheres like human trafficking, even semi-legal enterprises like mining. These two developments mean that it has become far harder to hinder cartels by taking out one person or one area of their business. They are largely an adaptation to government anti-cartel policies.

“Since Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón declared the start of the Drug War in 2006, both the US and Mexico’s security forces have aggressively pursued what is referred to as the kingpin strategy: they go after the 'head’ with the intent of weakening the ‘body,’ ” McCormick wrote. “After a decade of this approach, policy experts concur that it has failed and, if anything, has worsened the Drug War.”

While there was once seven main cartels, there are now as many as 20 smaller and midsize groups. In the two years that Guzmán has been in prison, there has been a record-breaking amount of murder in Mexico. In 2018, much of the worst violence centered on the central state of Guanajuato; notably, gangs were fighting not for drugs, but for stolen fuel.

Five out of six of the world’s most violent municipalities are now in Mexico, according to one recent report. In Mexico City, a capital once spared from the worst violence, the recent kidnapping and murder of a college student has raised concerns that violence from organized crime is spreading, rather than shrinking.

Mexicans clearly feel this is a major problem. A survey conducted by The Washington Post and Mexico’s Reforma newspaper earlier this month found that 55 percent of the country believed insecurity was the biggest problem Mexico faced, more than five times as high as any other potential problem listed.

But so far, there’s little evidence that the Mexican government has adapted to these new realities. The country’s new leader, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, made a point of breaking with his predecessors, saying “there is no war” on drugs and promising to use “hugs, not bullets” to combat gangs.

His signature policy so far has not been law and order, but cost-cutting. In May, he said he planned to divert U.S. funding for the fight against organized crime toward social programs. “It hasn’t worked,” he said of U.S. money.

López Obrador’s most significant move against the cartels, the creation of a Mexican National Guard, was initially routed to border control. But he recently ordered the guard to patrol the streets of the Mexican capital, against the wishes of many who are uncomfortable with the idea because it recalls Calderón’s militarization of policing.

Though Trump once privately offered to help former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto fight the “big league” of the cartels, the rise in violence in Mexico has received little significant reaction from his administration. Trump has spoken of Mexico’s murder rate not in terms of cross-border law enforcement, but as a justification for his harsh migration policy and the need for a wall.

Mexicans have their own concerns about immigration; 6 in 10 say migrants are a burden on their country. But only 2 percent listed migrants as the biggest problem facing Mexico. Meanwhile, 45 percent said López Obrador’s tactics in the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime were bad.

The Mexican president may be able to skirt the issue for now, and his overall approval rating remains high, at 70 percent. But he won’t be able to do so forever. After the sentencing of “El Chapo,” he risks becoming the man who embodies the failures of Mexican government policy against crime and violence.

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