El Chapo guilty: Mexico's narco-wars rage on
Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, infamous kingpin of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, was unanimously found guilty on all 10 counts against him by a federal jury in Brooklyn, New York, on Feb. 12. He was convicted of overseeing an international criminal conspiracy to import tons of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States over a 20-year period, and laundering the billions of dollars in proceeds.
The jury was anonymous even to the judge for fear of reprisals in a trial that became something of a media spectacle. Among those showing up to observe the proceedings was Alejandro Edda, the actor who plays El Chapo in the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico. The kingpin flashed the actor what the New York Times called an "ecstatic smile."
Chapo was already a media star even before he was immortalized by Netflix. "I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world," he boasted to Hollywood star Sean Penn in an embarrassingly gushy interview for Rolling Stone back in 2015, when he was still on the lam in Mexico. "I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats."
The shine may now come off his Robin Hood image with witness testimony about his vicious predilection for raping underage girls. The case against him featured 200 hours of testimony from 56 witnesses. Fourteen of those—his admitted former henchmen and traffickers—cooperated with the prosecution in hopes of reducing their own prison terms.
Chapo faces a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole—actually, multiple life sentences, though after one the rest become a mere formality. Having serially escaped from prison in Mexico, he is now probably headed for the federal government's Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado—also known as ADX for "administrative maximum," and more colloquially the "Alcatraz of the Rockies."
Will anything change?
Narco-violence has not abated in Mexico since Chapo's most recent capture in 2016, and his Sinaloa Cartel remains intact—now run by his heir apparent, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada. Witnesses at the trial said that Mayo is now protected by co-opted officials at the highest levels of Mexican state power, just as Chapo had been. Chapo's lawyers, in turn, claimed that Mayo had bribed Mexican officials to detain and frame their client so that he could inherit the cartel.
"El Mayo Zambada and Sinaloa have continued and thrived and flourished," Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami expert on Mexico's cartels, told CNN. "The fact that you knock off a kingpin like El Chapo—which he clearly was—does not mean that you end the organization or in any way severely debilitate it."
He added: "With or without El Chapo, these lines of bribery, these lines of corruption, extend into every political party at every level of the Mexican government."
And upstart rivals like the Jalisco New Generation cartel are rising to challenge the Sinaloa Cartel on its turf of Mexico's Pacific coast. Its leader, Rubén "El Mencho" Oseguera Cervantes, is another aspirant to fill Chapo's bloody shoes.
"There's going to be more bloodshed," Bagley predicted. "Every time there are these transitions...there is a period of adjustment. It's often quite bloody, but they sort things out because they have every incentive to do so."
How cannabis prohibition created El Chapo
This cycle has been playing itself out for a long time in Mexico. Chapo got his start in the 1980s overseeing ranches that grew cannabis for the Guadalajara Cartel, then Mexico's reigning crime machine. This was just as Mexico's old marijuana syndicates of the '70s were morphing into the sinister cocaine cartels. This transition was at least partially a result of the aggressive crackdown on cannabis—itself the bitter fruit of pressure from Washington.
This began in 1969, when President Richard Nixon virtually shut down the border, slowing traffic to a crawl with aggressive searches of every vehicle to root out smuggled cannabis, in what was called Operation Intercept. By the end of the '70s, Mexico capitulated to the pressure, launching Operation Condor, the first big militarized crackdown—on cannabis. Mexican federal police helicopters sprayed paraquat on the marijuana plantations. This helped incentivize the cartels' switch to ferrying cocaine coming up from Colombia—although cannabis would remain an important sideline.
The Guadalajara Cartel fractured when its leaders were finally arrested and convicted in 1985. This was occasioned by the cartel going too far—abducting and torturing to death a DEA agent in retaliation for the bust of a giant marijuana plantation in Chihuahua state. In the new regional syndicates to emerge from the fractured Guadalajara machine, Chapo seized control of the Sinaloa branch. After a long and bloody struggle with the rival Tijuana Cartel, it emerged some 20 years later as uncontested suzerain of Mexico's west. It then went to war with the competition in the east, the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas.
In 2006, the Mexican government sent in the army to fight the warring cartels, and violence escalated exponentially. It was at this point that Mexico's "drug war" arguably became a real internal war.
Chapo was arrested in 1993—for, among various drug crimes, the killing that year of the Archbishop of Guadalajara, Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo. But he escaped from prison in 2001—apparently using bribes to slip out in a laundry cart. He spent the next decade and change as the country's most-wanted fugitive, as his Sinaloa machine rose to hegemony. In February 2014, he was detained in Mazatlán, Sinaloa's coastal resort city, and sent to Mexico's top-security federal prison, at Altiplano, México state. But in July 2015, he escaped a second time—through an elaborate tunnel that had been built from his shower block at Altiplano to a nearby apartment. This obvious inside job was a painful embarrassment for Mexico's then-President Enrique Peña Nieto
Chapo taunted the world on social media as the second manhunt was carried out. In January 2016, he was apprehended at an upscale condo in Los Mochis, Sinaloa. A Mexican government that appeared eager to be rid of him had El Chapo extradited to the United States on Barack Obama's last day in office in January 2017.
Among the claims made against Chapo by his former henchmen in the Brooklyn trial is that he won the protection of President Peña Nieto with a $100 million bribe. This appears to vindicate the widespread conspiracy theory in Mexico that the government was in league with the Sinaloa Cartel, with enforcement efforts largely aimed at its competition.
There are some encouraging signs that Mexico's new President Andrés Manuel López Obrador will roll back the "drug war" militarization and lift the prohibitionist pressure on cannabis, at least. But there is a lot of damage to undo if Chapo getting sent up the river is to translate into any degree of peace on the ground on long-suffering Mexico.