The long read: As the capture and conviction of Mexicos notorious drug lord has shown, taking down the boss doesnt mean taking down the organisation
Just after midday on Tuesday 12 February, word came down that the verdict was ready in what had been widely described as the trial of the century. United States of America v Joaqun Guzmn Loera had lasted approximately three months it took prosecutors that long to present what they described as an avalanche of evidence, which had taken more than a decade to compile. The government called 56 witnesses, the defence called only one: an FBI agent, who finished testifying within an hour.
There was little expectation that Guzmn would mount a convincing defence. The diminutive 61-year-old (his nickname, El Chapo, means shorty in Spanish) was known around the world as a leader of Mexicos Sinaloa cartel, and the most high-profile drug kingpin since Pablo Escobar. In addition to smuggling thousands of tonnes of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and synthetic narcotics across the US-Mexico border, he had successfully pulled off two dramatic escapes from prisons in Mexico. He has been the subject of dozens of books, two popular TV series and, in 2009, was included in Forbes magazines list of billionaires. The following year, that same magazine named Guzmn one of the worlds most-wanted fugitives, second to only Osama bin Laden. As Guzmns lawyers liked to tell anybody who would listen, even before their client set foot in Brooklyn, he had already been convicted in the court of public opinion.
When he was captured by Mexican marines on 8 January 2016, Guzmn became the prize feather in the cap of the countrys law enforcement. Barack Obama called Mexican president Enrique Pea Nieto to congratulate him on the arrest, and in a move that could be interpreted either as a parting gift to Obama or a peace offering to his successor, Guzmn was extradited to New York on 19 January 2017, a day before Trump took office. Jack Riley, a retired Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) chief who recently published a book about his role in Guzmns arrest, told me that in the view of US authorities, catching El Chapo was an important warning to criminals around the world. Regardless of where you are, if you are breaking American laws, eventually, were going to get you.
Americans spend around $109bn on illegal drugs each year, and Bloomberg estimates that the Sinaloa cartel makes at least $11bn in annual sales to the US. But while Mexican cartels regularly appear in the US media, most people are unfamiliar with the circumstances that contributed to their rise. It is not common knowledge that Mexico launched its own war on drugs in the mid-2000s, or that the biggest cartels are sophisticated operations worth billions of dollars. Nor are many people aware that cartels are increasingly responsible for fentanyl, a form of synthetic heroin, entering the US. In an address to the media after the verdict was handed down, US government officials emphasised this point and the role of illegal fentanyl in perpetuating the opioids crisis.
While the workings of his business may be a mystery, Americans have heard of El Chapo. By the time he appeared in court in 2018, he was a late-night TV punchline, a symbol of extreme wealth and an escape artist with a talent for leaving law enforcement with their hands empty.
At the trial, Guzmn was found guilty of all charges against him, including the most serious having engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise. He will be sentenced at the end of June, and is almost certain to be jailed for life. His lawyers are seeking a retrial on the basis of jury misconduct, but the chances of that happening are slim.
When I was in Mexico City this spring, a month after the verdict, talk of the trial had already died down. Guzmns image had mostly disappeared from the magazine covers on display at the news kiosks that dot the streets of the capital. While people could still name the Sinaloa cartels leaders and lieutenants, they were more interested in the newer cartels, such as Jalisco Nueva Generacin or the local La Unin. Many people didnt want to discuss El Chapo at all. Narco fatigue the exhaustion that comes with being oversaturated by news and pop culture about the drug trade had long ago set in. Over the past 13 years, Mexicos internal war on drugs has dominated the media, resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 people and failed to stop narcotrafficking.
Guzmns arrest did not magically rid Mexico, or the US, of violence or drugs. Above all, his trial demonstrated how disposable any single person is in the larger machinations of the narco-state. There has never been a clear definition of what exactly constitutes a cartel, and as smaller, more transient gangs replace larger organisations, going after leaders like Guzmn seems increasingly pointless. Rather than reducing the levels of violence and trafficking in Mexico, that approach the so-called kingpin strategy, employed by Mexico and the US has enabled new forms of crime to flourish. As Ismael El Mayo Zambada, Chapos longtime partner, said in 2010 in a rare interview with the Mexican news magazine El Proceso, the problem of narcos isnt going away: As soon as capos are locked up, killed or extradited, their replacements are already around.
Since the early 1990s, the US has targeted cartels via their leaders. It is a fairly straightforward idea: take out the head of an illegal organisation and the rest will collapse. The approach was developed to bring down the Colombian cartels, and in that case, it had some success. When Pablo Escobar was shot to death by Colombian police in 1993, his cartel went down with him.
But even as the structures of organised crime have evolved, US law enforcement has generally stuck to this top-down model. If they are not killing drug lords, they are using the American judicial system to make examples of them. Since 2001, when Mexicos supreme court agreed to allow the extradition of criminals so long as they would not face the death penalty or life in prison (this ruling was amended four years later to permit life sentences), dozens of narcotraffickers have been extradited to the US, including members of the Tijuana, Beltrn-Leyva, Sinaloa and Los Zetas cartels. If Guzmn ends up in the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, as he is expected to, he will share the facility with former Gulf cartel leader Osiel Crdenas Guilln.
While Sinaloa has historically been, and still remains, Mexicos most powerful cartel, the world it came up in no longer exists. Between the early 90s and the mid-2000s, the Sinaloa, Tijuana, Jurez and Gulf organisations were mini-monopolies, with borders that more or less stayed the same. Then, with the start of Mexicos drug war in 2006, that arrangement started to fall apart. As Mexican and American authorities took out cartel leaders, groups fractured and new ones emerged.
Previously, the Zetas, whose leaders came from the special forces of the Mexican army, had been a mercenary group in the employ of the Gulf cartel. Now they became an autonomous organisation. Jalisco Nueva Generacin, which had been linked to Sinaloa, morphed into one of Mexicos most ferocious cartels. Splinter groups and gangs that had originated in prisons or as local militias began to gain power.