On Thursday evening, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency transported Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán—better known as the drug lord El Chapo—from his prison in Ciudad Juarez to a federal detention center in New York, one of six U.S. jurisdictions where he faces indictment for felony charges, including cocaine trafficking, money laundering, and conspiracy to commit kidnapping, torture, and murder.
The extradition, which had initially been approved last May, before being suspended on appeal, was expected to be held up for months and came as a surprise, even to Guzmán’s lawyers—leaving many to speculate on the implications of its timing.
One interpretation maintains that sending the worst of its “bad hombres” to the U.S. was Mexico’s contribution to the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who launched his candidacy by denouncing Mexican “rapists” pouring over the border. For Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, the thinking goes, it’s better to mount a shaved head than pay for The Wall.
Ioan Grillo, author of Gangster Warlords and El Narco, saw the move as Mexico’s attempt to “show the Trump government it is cooperating on security.” It’s “a message,” said University of Texas professor Guadalupe Correa Cabrera, “that the government has decided to work with” the new administration. Breitbart, the alt-right Pravda site behind the “Cartel Chronicles” and other such breathless reports on the impending border “invasion,” promoted a similar take on its homepage, declaring Peña Nieto’s reversal on extradition an early example of the sort of “winning” the U.S. will soon tire of under Trump.
An alternate reading is that Mexico rushed to complete the extradition process before Trump took office, in a subtle rebuke of Trump’s reflexive bullying and belligerent racism. “The last thing they wanted was for Trump to take credit for Chapo Guzmán’s extradition,” Mike Vigil, a former DEA chief of international operations, told Reuters. If Mexico had waited another day to hand over its prized prisoner, suggested Nexos editor Esteban Illades, “We would have had months of Trump pretending on Twitter that it was because of him.”
Each explanation has its inconsistencies. Mexico, for instance, could not have completed the extradition any sooner, as the Supreme Court hadn’t issued a final ruling on Guzmán’s petitions until Wednesday. And, as Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and El Universal columnist, noted, it doesn’t make sense to give Trump a win he can’t fully claim as his own—not that Trump is exactly one to pass up an unearned victory lap.
Of course, not all of these scenarios are mutually exclusive. Unnamed sources told CBS foreign correspondent Margaret Brennan that Chapo was something of a diplomatic Rorschach test, a “goodwill gesture” to both the incoming and outgoing administrations. There are also domestic factors to consider. Guzmán’s legal team, which says it will file a complaint against the “illegal” extradition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, insists that the Mexican government “handled it politically to obscure” ongoing civic unrest over a gasoline price hike it snuck through Congress during the New Year’s holiday. “It’s totally political,” said lawyer Andres Granados, in an interview with the Associated Press.
But focusing too intently on the optics distracts from a greater political question. After escaping twice from maximum security prison, will the world’s most-wanted outlaw fight his case in court? Putting Chapo on trial, reported the Huffington Post’s Roque Planas last week, would mean exposing “how far Mexico’s biggest drug cartel has penetrated government institutions and private enterprises on both sides of the border.”
As investigative journalist Anabel Hernández documents in Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers, her seminal account of the rise of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín Guzmán’s transformation from diminutive, uneducated peasant farmer to globally infamous mafia kingpin owed, at every pivotal stage, to his ability to leverage legitimate power.
Chapo first made a name for himself in the mid-80s, smuggling Colombian cocaine for the Guadalajara Cartel, along the drugs-for-arms pipeline the CIA fostered as part of its illegal, covert support for the Nicaraguan contras. His spectacular 2001 prison break was orchestrated, Hernández reports, through the highest levels of civilian intelligence, the federal police, and the administration of Vicente Fox—who has since dedicated himself to trolling Donald Trump on Twitter.
When Chapo and other drug lords formed the alliance that would become the Sinaloa Cartel, “the capital he offered the new criminal body” was the “support of the federal government”—and, particularly, of President Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Many suspect, writes Hernández, with some independent corroboration, that it was the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency that came up with the “brilliant idea of creating a drug traffickers union” in the first place—a revelation that would be in keeping with the agency’s history of backing one rival against another, as it did in the hunt for Chapo’s Colombian precursor, Pablo Escobar. Jesús Vicente Zambada Niebla, the son of Guzman’s still-fugitive senior partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, was preparing to mount a defense on those grounds in Chicago court, before U.S. prosecutors offered him an acceptable deal.
Only El Chapo knows how pervasive his network of corruption is, but it’s safe to say that there is tremendous vested interest in ensuring he doesn’t start naming names. At the very least, experts believe, a talkative Chapo could bring down a number of Trump fanboys in U.S. border patrol, and cause major trouble for the international financial institutions that, like Wachovia and HSBC, gladly laundered the drug lord’s alleged billions. Flaunting the dirty secrets of Mexican presidents, generals, lawmakers, police chiefs, prosecutors, and the like, would also embarrass their U.S. counterparts, who have continued to supply hundreds of millions of dollars in annual drug war assistance, despite overwhelming evidence of systemic rot and state-sanctioned brutality in Mexico.
In all likelihood, Chapo will join a growing list of former associates and enter a plea arrangement with the government, in exchange for reduced sentencing, protection for his family, and a vast trove of sensitive information that may never be released to the public. If so, it will only reinforce the fundamental emptiness of the entire spectacle.
Now entering its eleventh year, the Mexican drug war has, by some estimates, cost more lives in the past decade than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. An average of 29 murders a day were registered in 2016, the bloodiest year of Peña Nieto’s four-year term, which has marred by a pattern of atrocity and cover-up, most notably in the case of the 43 students disappeared in Iguala. Already, 2017 has seen the assassination of indigenous and environmental rights activist Isidro Baldenegro—the second Goldman Prize winner killed in the last year, following the murder of Berta Cáceres in nearby Honduras. According to a recent report from Animal Politico, violations against migrants fleeing such carnage are up 200 percent along Mexico’s increasingly militarized southern border.
Individual successes in the so-called Kingpin Strategy, in which authorities target cartel leaders, do not mitigate an overall context of “untrustworthy institutions and escalating violence,” wrote the Security Assistance Monitor’s Gabrielle Acierno and Sarah Kinosian. At a press conference Friday ahead of Chapo’s arraignment, U.S. Attorney Robert L. Capers outlined the scope of the Department of Justice’s “milestone” case, which will seek $14 billion in assets and call dozens of witnesses. But it’s hard to imagine why one more trophy, however spectacular, would alter Acierno and Kinosian’s assessment.
Meanwhile, the best that Mexicans can hope for now is an orderly succession between Chapo’s sons and brother. Guzman won’t be there to restore the pax narcotica in the event of prolonged infighting, further cartel fragmentation, or an outbreak of intensified conflict with rivals like the Jalisco New Generation—“Mexico’s New Super Cartel,” as The Daily Beast gleefully described it. The Biggest Drug Lord of All Time will be caged up in supermax. But the drugs—and the money and guns and bodies—will just keep on flowing.