Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the former head of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, is going to spend hard time in an American prison.
The jury reached a verdict in the US drug trafficking trial on Tuesday, finding Guzmán guilty on all 10 counts against him.
The verdict ends a trial that has been described as a “spectacle” and “wild” by media, in which allegations about Guzmán’s flamboyant lifestyle were interspersed with grisly details of his many, many violent crimes.
It also brings some closure to the many people who have suffered at the hands of El Chapo, who ruled over a murderous drug trafficking organization and terrorized Mexicans and others around the world for years — while helping fuel addiction crises such as the US’s opioid epidemic.
The verdict has drawn even more attention because of Guzmán’s previous escapes from prison. He was convicted twice in Mexico, and managed to escape from Mexican prison both times. This time, it’s on the US government, not Mexico, to make sure he doesn’t escape again.
But for all the focus on capturing Guzmán, it’s not clear that any of this will do much, if anything, to win the war on drugs and stop the flow of illegal substances into the US — and, indeed, illicit heroin, fentanyl, and other drugs continue to flow into the country in massive quantities, despite El Chapo’s arrest and the capture of many drug lords before him.
El Chapo has been in prison before — and escaped
Guzmán ran the Sinaloa cartel, one of the most powerful drug trafficking organizations in Mexico, for decades. The job made him massively wealthy — netting him nearly $14 billion, according to investigators. He also developed a violent criminal network that terrorized the public and corrupted governments and law enforcement around the world, through bribes, extortion, and murder, to keep drug routes going. And he built a global reputation for both ruthlessness and a bombastic lifestyle.
As Dara Lind and Amanda Taub wrote for Vox in 2016, “Guzmán is by far the most famous criminal in Mexico, and he has long been a symbol of the power that criminal organizations had achieved there. … By now, he’s as much of a folk hero as anything. He’s the star of countless narcocorridos, or folk songs about outlaws and cartel leaders. He’s known as a bit of a bon vivant who hasn’t let being on the run get in the way of enjoying himself (or being generous to his fellow Mexicans).”
Now that a jury has convicted Guzmán, he’ll go to prison — for the third time.
Previously, Guzmán was held in Mexico’s prisons but escaped in 2001 and 2015. In the first escape, he effectively controlled the prison where he was held — dozens of prison officials there would be later indicted for corruption — and he managed to escape by hiding in a laundry cart. In the second, he fled through a trap door into an underground tunnel.
The escapes were embarrassing for Mexican officials, who previously refused to extradite Guzmán to the US for prosecution. The officials argued, in part, that Mexico could handle the case — and, more broadly, its own national security affairs.
The escapes, especially the second one, cemented the impression that Mexico wasn’t up to the task. The Mexican criminal justice system was already strained and corrupted by the country’s war on drugs, leading to a legitimacy and credibility crisis. El Chapo’s escape just became part of the broader problem.
So when Guzmán was recaptured in Mexico in 2016, he was extradited to the US. He faced charges on 10 counts, including engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, money laundering, and, of course, international distribution of illegal drugs. A jury found him guilty on all counts after several days of deliberations.
El Chapo’s trial revealed a lot about his harrowing crimes
Over the two and a half months during which Guzmán stood trial, a jury heard 200 hours of testimony from 56 witnesses, and saw proof of drug trafficking activity ranging from surveillance photographs to intercepted text messages. The troves of evidence gave a lot of insight into El Chapo and his drug trafficking organization.
Much of it focused on the nitty-gritty of day-to-day drug cartel operations — what Ray Sanchez at CNN called “International Drug Trafficking 101.” As Sanchez reported, the trial revealed the many ingenious ways drugs are shipped into the US, including via “fishing boats, trains, tractor-trailers, radar-evading airplanes, passenger cars at legal ports of entry, submarines, oil tankers, cocaine-laden cans of jalapeños and cross-border tunnels.” (None of which, experts say, would be stopped by a wall at the US-Mexico border.) The trial also exposed how the cartel had inserted itself into all parts of the Mexican government, corrupting the police, military, and politicians with bribes and threats.
It also revealed some pretty horrifying stories, with murder and torture coming up regularly throughout the trial. One of El Chapo’s associates recalled passing by a naked man chained to a pole — an example of the kind of torture Guzmán used to keep his stranglehold over the cartel. Another of El Chapo’s associates, Miguel Ángel Martínez, said that Guzmán had tried to have him assassinated multiple times over suspicions of snitching, including an attempt in prison in which a band played a song taunting Martinez before an assassin threw a grenade into Martinez’s cell. And an ex-hitman for El Chapo claimed Guzmán personally tortured and murdered people.
But the trial also included some bizarre, less serious moments. For example, El Chapo was convicted in part because he insisted on monitoring his wife, mistresses, and associates — all of which created a trail of evidence back to Guzmán after his IT specialist flipped against him. In another bizarre tale, Guzmán and an associate considered pushing a helicopter off a cliff as part of an insurance fraud scheme. There was the time Guzmán reportedly fled the Marines through an escape tunnel while he was naked. And the trial detailed El Chapo’s love of fancy guns, from a diamond-laden pistol to a gold-plated AK-47.
Even within the trial, El Chapo seemed to have a sense for theatrics. At one point, he and his wife wore matching red jackets in a show of solidarity toward a mistress testifying against him.
Throughout all of the hearings, El Chapo’s guilt was never really in doubt. The defense only presented one witness, who spoke for less than half an hour, Keegan Hamilton reported for Vice. “The government has methodically obliterated any semblance of reasonable doubt about his status as the ruthless leader of the ‘continuing criminal enterprise’ known as the Sinaloa cartel,” Hamilton wrote.
The verdict probably won’t do much to stop the flow of drugs into the US
One of the goals of arresting drug kingpins like El Chapo is to stifle the international drug trade. But Guzmán’s demise probably won’t change much about the flow of drugs into the US and other countries.
In 2011, the US Department of Homeland Security issued a memo that acknowledged this outright, concluding that “there is no perceptible pattern that correlates [to] either a decrease or increase in drug seizures due to the removal of key [drug trafficking organization] personnel.”
Other federal law enforcement officials have acknowledged this as well. In a piece looking at how US and Mexican authorities took down the Tijuana cartel in the 1990s and 2000s, David Epstein reported for ProPublica that the officials involved in the investigation had a lot of doubts about their ultimate impact:
Herrod is 50 years old now and nearing the end of his career with the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration]. In the time he spent hunting the Arellanos, his hair and goatee went from black to salt-and-pepper to finally just plain salt. He’s proud of the audacity and perseverance it took to bring down the cartel, and he knows he helped prevent murders and kidnappings. But when he looks back, he doesn’t see the clear-cut triumph portrayed in press releases. Instead, he and other agents who worked the case say the experience left them disillusioned. And far from stopping the flow of drugs, taking out the [Tijuana Cartel] only cleared territory for Joaquín Guzmán Loera — aka “El Chapo” — and his now nearly unstoppable Sinaloa cartel. Guzmán even lent the DEA a hand.
Guzmán himself seems well aware of this. Asked by Sean Penn (long story) about whether he’s responsible for drug addiction around the world, Guzmán responded, “No, that is false, because the day I don’t exist, it’s not going to decrease in any way at all.”
How is this possible? The problem is what’s known as the “hydra effect”: When one source of drugs shuts down, another takes its place. The name comes from the mythological hydra, a beast that, in some versions of the story, grew another head when its previous one was cut off.
Since drugs are so lucrative, drug producers and traffickers don’t just cease to exist when governments detain or kill them. The business is so profitable that someone will always be there, willing to replace defunct organizations or leaders. In this case, the fall of El Chapo won’t lead to the end of the drug trade, but instead will lead to someone else replacing him as head of the Sinaloa cartel. And even if the Sinaloa cartel collapsed — an unlikely event — another drug trafficking organization would take its place.
The effect is similar to the “balloon effect,” when cracking down on the drug trade in one area simply moves it to another area — sort of like pushing down on a balloon can simply move the air to other parts of the balloon. This effect has been documented all around the world, including Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, and West Africa.
The general point is that taking out heads of cartels or the cartels themselves won’t rid the world of drugs, but will instead shift the drug trade to other criminals and sometimes other parts of the globe.
These effects are an expected result of the war on drugs — in what’s known as the “profit paradox.” One of the primary goals of the drug war is to make drugs more expensive by limiting their supply; the idea is that a drug habit is much more difficult to sustain if drugs are more expensive.
But this also makes drugs immensely profitable. According to Jon Caulkins, a drug policy expert at Carnegie Mellon University, the war on drugs increases the price of drugs from production to sale in the US by as much as 10 times. This creates a paradox in which drugs are less affordable and accessible but the drugs that are sold are enormously profitable for criminal organizations, despite all the troubles of smuggling the substances through Latin America and into the US. This creates a huge financial incentive for anyone to replace El Chapo and, eventually, whoever follows him.
What’s worse, capturing or killing the heads of drug cartels can actually lead to more violence. By leaving a power vacuum in place, and because drugs are so profitable that a top spot in the drug trade is always desired, the end of a drug lord’s reign often leads to a battle between aspiring successors.
As former DEA head Michele Leonhart previously said of drug-related violence in Mexico, “It may seem contradictory, but the unfortunate level of violence is a sign of success in the fight against drugs.”
Indeed, after Guzmán’s arrest, there were reports that the power vacuum left by the weakened Sinaloa cartel led to increased violence across Mexico.
Again, that’s not to say that the capture of El Chapo was bad. He was involved in mass murder, and it’s important that the justice system, whether in the US or Mexico, shows these types of criminals that they can’t get away with their horrific crimes. But all signs suggest that he will simply be replaced, if he hasn’t been already — and the drug war will continue to lead to death and violence around the world.