El Chapo and the Faceless Future of Mexico's Drug War

The country’s last kingpin is now behind bars. And we may never see another like him.
Mexican soldiers escort Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in Mexico City. (Reuters/Edgard Garrido)

A chapter in the war on drugs ended Saturday at 6:40 am local time in the sleepy, sun-soaked Mexican resort town of Mazatlán. That morning, an elite team of Mexican marines captured Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the diminutive drug lord who has reigned for decades atop the international crime empire known as the Sinaloa Cartel. In the end, the man widely believed to be a billionaire was caught hiding in a fourth-floor condo that rents for a modest $1,200 per month.

The unassuming hideout was just the first crack in El Chapo’s mythical façade. The man often portrayed as the living, breathing incarnation of Tony Montana did not go down in a blaze of glory. Guzmán surrendered peacefully, without firing a single shot. A photo quickly surfaced online that appeared to show him as a chubby, shirtless man with a bushy black mustache, kneeling submissively before his captors. When the narco king was paraded before reporters later in the afternoon, masked soldiers grabbed him aggressively by the back of his neck, adding extra insult to a perp walk that was already causing grave injury to his image.

El Chapo was the perfect villain for the war on drugs—a boogeyman blamed for the insuppressible flow of cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine into the United States. Jack Riley, the special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Chicago field division, has publicly blamed Chapo for the city’s gang-related bloodshed, saying “Guzmán supplies a majority of the narcotics that fuel [the] violence.” After a team of Navy SEALs dispatched Osama bin Laden, El Chapo assumed the title of the world’s most-wanted man. While other kingpins came and went, Chapo was a constant, menacing presence.

From a cultural standpoint, the timing of Guzmán’s downfall seems fitting. Presenting a captured kingpin to the public like a human trophy may be a hallmark of the war on drugs, but the political climate has changed markedly in recent years. Public opinion in Latin America and the U.S. is gradually turning against militarizing the war on drugs. Honduras recently suspended joint operations with the DEA after a controversial raid was blamed for the deaths of innocent civilians. Emboldened by marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, current and former presidents in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Uruguay are all pushing to end prohibitionist drug policies. Parts of Mexico are still mired in cartel-fueled chaos, but the brutality and unstaunched bloodshed that marked former Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s battle with drug gangs is subsiding.

Of course, the drug war will not magically end with El Chapo’s arrest. If anything, it might make matters worse in the short term for the average Mexican citizen. Each time a kingpin falls, bloody internecine conflict inevitably follows. When the Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cárdenas Guillén ended up in Colorado’s infamous “supermax” federal penitentiary after his arrest in 2003 (a fate that may await El Chapo—federal prosecutors have already announced that they will seek his extradition), it paved the way for the Los Zetas cartel to commence its reign of terror across Mexico. The current situation in the Mexican state of Michoacán—where peasants have formed heavily armed militias to fight back against corrupt police and extortionist gangs—stems from the fragmentation of the La Familia cartel after the rumored death of its leader, Nazario “El Chayo” Moreno.

Even with El Chapo behind bars, the Sinaloa Cartel remains the most powerful drug-trafficking organization in Mexico, if not the world. Its operatives have been arrested in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and, of course, the United States. The cartel may have lost its CEO, but its board of directors remains intact. While several top lieutenants were arrested earlier this month, key leaders Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Juan José “El Azul” Esparragoza Moreno are still at-large. Both men are known for keeping extremely low profiles, the exact opposite of Chapo’s swashbuckling Robin Hood persona.

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Keegan Hamilton is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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