The world was surprised, and very likely pleased, by this past weekend's capture of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, head of the Sinaloa drug cartel and one of the world’s richest and most powerful drug traffickers. Pleased for good reason, because “Shorty” Guzmán, who was on the run for 13 years after a prison escape, is believed responsible for importing 25% of all illicit drugs into the United States.
In 2013, he became the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s No. 1 target. Forbes magazine had estimated Guzmán’s fortune to be $1 billion, though he disappeared from the magazine’s list of global billionaires that year because his earnings couldn’t be verified.
The international police agency Interpol was also pursuing the Sinaloa cartel for coordinated trafficking of cocaine and synthetic drugs between Europe and the United States, as well as the drug trade to Asia.
The cartel was also believed to be involved in arms trafficking between Eastern Europe and Latin America. Its operatives have been caught in unlikely places such as Egypt, while Guzmán’s global sway led Australian media to dub his operations "an empire on which night never falls."
He was finally caught early Saturday in a rented flat in Mazatlán, a resort in the northwest Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Guzmán's downfall is momentous for several reason. First, he led a massive criminal empire, which made him the world’s most wanted man after the death of terrorist Osama bin Laden. “Shorty” — though he was not unusually short — had become a criminal icon comparable to Colombia's Pablo Escobar or to Al Capone. His capture is a victory for global order, and above all for the Mexican government.
Three chances at capture
Guzmán fled from a maximum-security Mexican prison in 2001 — when Vicente Fox was the country's president — and worse, police had the opportunity three different times to catch him. Internal obstructions inside President Fox’s National Action Party prevented them from doing so. The administration of the next president, Felipe Calderón, also failed to catch him, that time apparently for press leaks by members of the bureaucracy.
So the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto had the chance to display not just a great feat in fighting crime but also a measure of unity within the president’s Institutional Revolutionary Party.
The arrest is also important because it appears to be part of recent pattern of law enforcement successes, notably the recent capture of the cartel’s chief gunman, a man dubbed “Number 20.” Joint operations between Mexican forces and the United States' Drug Enforcement Agency suggest they may be closing in on the cartel’s other strongmen, Ismael Zambada and José Esparragoza, nicknamed “The Blue.”
“Shorty” Guzmán was not betrayed by associates but caught thanks to investigations. The same type of intelligence work led to the July 2013 capture of the mass-murdering head of the Zetas Cartel, Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales or Z-40.
Faced in recent months with the rise of self-defense militias in western Mexico — the result of increasing fury about crime’s unfettered sway over the daily lives of Mexicans — the Mexican government began an offensive against one of the cartels, the Knights Templars, in one of the country’s most violent states, Michoacán. Guzman’s arrest can be seen as a continuation of this type of initiative, and if these actions do not yet add up to a victory against the cartels, the state is certainly giving them a battering.
Still, the arrest is far from signifying the end of the Sinaloa Cartel. Violence is not about to decline, as his arrest could indeed foment disorder inside the cartel, and weaken it against its main rivals, the ultra-violent Zetas. So unless the authorities have a plan for striking at the Zetas with the same force, the arrest’s success could end up drowning in the bloodbath it may yet provoke.