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.

Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight Crime, an organization that analyzes and investigates organized crime in Latin America, made the argument over the weekend that the empire Chapo created will never be replicated:

With at least 80 criminal organizations operating throughout the country, the competition is fierce. Their objectives vary but increasingly the battleground is not the international but the national market.

Paradoxically, this is what the government wants. These are smaller organizations, with less ability, connections and capital to compromise the state. They therefore represent less of a national and more of a local threat.

They have less ability and fewer connections on an international level as well. In fact, it appears as if the days of the vertically integrated, monolithic trafficking organizations are coming to an end.

Beyond splintering, Mexican cartels are now faceless. In the past few years, the authorities have killed or captured top bosses of Los Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, the Juárez Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, and the Knights of Templar. Chapo was the last household name, and by far the most famous. His rags-to-riches story, his legendary escape from prison in a laundry cart, his ranking on the Forbes billionaires list—all fit the perfect narrative for a drug lord.

By all accounts, the hunt for El Chapo was thrilling right up until the very end. The AP, which broke the news of Guzmán ’s arrest on Saturday, reported that he narrowly avoided capture earlier in the week by dashing into hidden tunnels underneath the city of Culiacán as soldiers struggled to bash down a steel-reinforced door. It was the stuff of Hollywood, but Saturday brought the ultimate anticlimax: Chapo was arrested without incident. The slow-burning war on drugs continues. Fade to black.