Having escaped from prison in 2001, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was captured on Saturday in Mazatlán, Mexico by a joint Mexican-US operation. By using “bribes, safe houses and an army of cartel helpers”, the most important drug lord in Mexico had previously managed to evade the authorities ever since his initial getaway thirteen years ago. In a country marked by immense economic inequality, writer Malcolm Beith points out how El Chapo was once apparently caught in Mexico City but, after paying $50,000 in cash, was soon released. With this in mind, it shouldn’t be at all surprising that this billionaire was able to avoid arrest for so long.
One of the difficulties (for the sectors of the Mexican government not in collusion with organised crime) was the sheer extent of the drugs trade in the nation. The archbishop of Durango told reporters in 2010 that El Chapo was “omnipresent”, with a massive network of employees allowing him to remain at the helm of the Sinaloa Cartel even as a fugitive. Earlier this month, however, his main residence in the Sinaloan capital of Culiacán – connected to other houses (and the sewage system) by secret tunnels – was raided. He had already managed to escape by the time the authorities entered, but they knew they were close to catching him.
The Mexican authorities would like people to believe that this capture is a massive event, showing that they are effective in dealing with the drug cartels. They aren’t. The problem is of immense proportions, and both parties which have governed over the last century are to blame. Its extent is exemplified by a recent piece of news – the discovery of at least 20 bodies in an “unmarked grave” outside Guadalajara. This news came after the arrest of a 23-year-old drug trafficker affiliated with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel – a cartel battling for domination with the Knights Templar Cartel in the neighbouring state of Michoacán, extorting and intimidating innocent citizens in the process. This discovery isn’t unique, either. In the last two months of 2013, 63 bodies (probably killed during conflicts between the two cartels) were found in mass graves between Jalisco and Michoacán.
The government’s failure to deal with the drugs cartels (and fix the problems that feed their existence) is such that citizens have felt forced to take up arms in self-defence. Community police forces (or Autodefensas) have been fighting against the Knights Templar drug cartel for many months in Michoacán, having much more success in pushing them back than the government. But the government has become increasingly worried about the growth in number of these citizen self-defence groups as they are independent from the State and could pose a risk to government control over the population. As a result, the military was finally sent into Michoacán last month, killing some Autodefensa members in the process. Later, the government encouraged members to sign a deal which would incorporate them into official forces. It seems that the government has suddenly taken an interest in fighting the cartels – after months and years of inaction and collusion.
President Peña Nieto has recently pledged to spend $3.4bn on infrastructure to “address the underlying causes of the unrest”, but the call rings hollow considering the neoliberal ‘reforms’ his government has passed – effectively putting the country on the road to the privatisation of public education, the currently State-owned energy industry, and other key areas of the national economy. The only thing these changes are likely to bring is more injustice and more desperation.
Military presence in Michoacán and the capture of El Chapo are simply propaganda exercises, hoping to convince the People that the government is dealing with Mexico’s illicit drug trade. In reality, they are token actions which ignore the real solution: social justice in the form of dignified employment and empowerment of the population.
A tree doesn’t die just because you pick its most delicious fruit or cut off its biggest branch. To kill it, you must destroy its roots. In the same way, we mustn’t think that El Chapo’s capture puts an end to the problem of drug trafficking in Mexico. He is just one man, but there are thousands upon thousands of people involved in the trade. According to cartel scholar George Grayson, his arrest may be “a thorn in the side of the Sinaloa cartel, but not a dagger in its heart”. The only logical, concrete way to finally see off the trade is to end social and economic exploitation, injustice, and poverty. As long as these conditions remain, so will the cartels.