Head Games

Mexico’s president promised a new approach to the drug wars. So why is he still going after big fish?

Grigoriy Sisoev/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images
Grigoriy Sisoev/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images

It was only a little over a year ago that Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto drew a sharp distinction between the policies of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, and his own plan for taking on the scourge of the drug trafficking organizations (DTO) roiling the country. Calderón’s military-style crackdowns — which emphasized taking out the kingpins and drug lords leading the cartels — had proved a failure, the new administration argued. Instead, Peña Nieto promised a new strategy, one that, as he put it, would take on the structural roots of drug trafficking and "focus institutional efforts on attending to the [social] causes of the criminal phenomenon."

And yet, on Feb. 22, it was Peña Nieto’s government that celebrated the capture of the biggest prize of them all: Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, head of the Sinaloa cartel. "The apprehension of one of the most wanted drug lords at the international level shows the effectiveness of the Mexican state," Peña Nieto trumpeted, following the arrest. The capture came less than a year after the Peña Nieto government had nabbed another big fish: Miguel Treviño Morales, or "Z-40," leader of Los Zetas, was captured in July 2013.

Though he came into office with the best of intentions and understands well the futility of an endless series of high-profile arrests and the resilience of the cartels, Peña Nieto can’t, it seems, resist the allure of the big get.

Peña Nieto had campaigned on a pledge to combat Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations not through the kind of military-style campaigns favored by Calderón and his fellow Partido Acción Nacional leader Vicente Fox, which many blamed for a spike in violence, but through a more comprehensive strategy: judicial reform, expansion of the federal police, and the establishment of a new paramilitary security organization, the Gendarmería Nacional, for the most violent regions of the country.

So why has he reverted back to what he views as an ineffective strategy? Because comprehensive reform, of the sort that could rebuild the credibility and the effectiveness of Mexico’s judicial system, is hard. These major efforts, only part of Peña Nieto’s ambitious plans for reform in Mexico, have largely stalled or, in the case of the Gendarmería, have been watered down. And because for all of his administration’s understanding of the complexities and nuance of combating drug trafficking, there are still few things that beat a big arrest for symbolic value, and for sending a message (and for taking a wanted and dangerous man off the streets — no one, of course, is arguing that El Chapo should be free). The fight against DTOs is, at least partially, about who can give the appearance of winning and being in control. The DTOs themselves understand this too. That’s why, for example, they leave mutilated bodies by the side of the highway, near a busy overpass.

The importance of symbolism in the case of the Guzman arrest is difficult to overstate. El Chapo, or "Shorty," had evaded capture since his 2001 escape from Puente Grande, a high-security Mexican prison. For the next 13 years, his legend grew, both as a businessman — Forbes named him one of the world’s most influential — and as a living representation of the government’s fruitless efforts against drug trafficking. His freedom was humiliating.

His arrest could help change this narrative, at least temporarily. The sight of a nondescript, middle-aged man with a paunch being led away in handcuffs was, after all these years, almost anticlimactic and certainly punctured much of the El Chapo mystique, while at the same time bolstering perceptions of an effective and powerful central Mexican government. (For comparison, think back to the reverence for U.S. Navy SEAL Team 6 following the death of Osama bin Laden.)

And projecting an image of competence and progress against drug trafficking may be particularly important at the moment, as the Peña Nieto administration struggles to come up with a strategy for how to handle the autodefensas — the armed civilian organizations that are taking on the DTOs without government sanction or control. The autodefensas’ unorthodox tactics — they’ve been known to, for example, hold police officers at gunpoint — are due at least in part to a growing frustration with government ineffectiveness and corruption. Analyst Vanda Felbab-Brown characterized these groups as "deeply destabilizing" in a 2013 report for the Brookings Institution. Analogous organizations in Colombia, another nation riven by the illegal drug trade, have, for example, devolved into paramilitary organizations focused on targeting political rivals. Although the Mexican militias have not yet reached what FelbabBrown calls the "disastrous intensity" of their Colombian counterparts, they do provide a compelling alternative to a state that has already lost the trust of many. Arresting El Chapo, though perhaps ultimately not helpful, at least conveys to the autodefensas that the central Mexican government is not yet at the mercy of the DTOs and is still able to mount large-scale operations against those it deems a danger.

The arrest of a famous kingpin — especially one so thoroughly associated with a broader group, like El Chapo is with Sinaloa — tells a simple, straightforward story that fits neatly into a news headline. By contrast, the intricate, incremental work that goes into picking apart supply chains and disrupting financial networks is difficult to explain in brief. And while few would suggest El Chapo shouldn’t be taken off the streets, building a consensus around the best way to, say, reform the judiciary, as well as generating the political will to proceed, requires far more heavy lifting.

Guzman’s arrest is being touted as a success on both sides of the border. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder characterized it as "a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States." But of course, this victory is at best temporary, if not illusory. Actually stemming the flow of illegal drugs and stanching the associated violence is a much more difficult goal and one that remains out of reach. Even if Sinaloa is crippled by El Chapo’s arrest and that may well not be the case it will make little difference in controlling the flow of drugs, contraband, weapons, and money. Newer, more violent organizations such as the Knights Templar and Los Zetas, which appears to be weathering well Z-40’s capture, will move to take over routes and businesses previously controlled by Sinaloa. It is likely that the DTO itself may splinter if that happens, the ensuing violence may further damage a nation already scarred from years of DTO-related killings. As long as profits can be made, and hidden, through illicit trade, there will be competition for those profits, with or without El Chapo.

There are reasons to find hope in El Chapo’s arrest, however. The arrest did not involve cutting-edge border control technology or high-tech aerial surveillance, but old-fashioned police work and cross-border cooperation. "We got the right people to flip and we were up on good wire," one law enforcement source told the Associated Press. The extent and type of U.S. involvement might never be fully known, but the cooperation between the two nations provides a glimmer of optimism about the future of such efforts. Cross-border cooperation is crucial for getting to the roots of drug trafficking; the DTOs’ biggest customer is the United States.

And there are reasons to find hope that real progress is taking place in the fight against trafficking — even if it keeps a lower profile. While media was paying attention to the capture of an aging drug lord, and focused on the network of sewage tunnels that El Chapo used to temporarily evade capture, they missed a much bigger story: The discovery of a 481-foot-long smuggling tunnel leading from Arizona to Nogales, Sonora, which traffickers used to smuggle tons of illegal drugs and other contraband into the United States. (The tunnel has since been shut down.)

Congratulations on your big fish, Mr. President, but you would do well to remember your own advice: It’s moves like these — dismantling the logistical and financial networks of drug trafficking organizations — that will, in the end, do more damage than any high-profile arrest.

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