Will the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán, son of infamous cartel leader El Chapo, help Mexico’s war on drugs?

mexican national guard police trucks
Members of the Mexican National Guard secure the main entrance of Jesus Maria, Mexico, the small town where Ovidio Guzman was detained earlier in the week. The government operation to detain Ovidio, the son of imprisoned drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, on Jan. 5 unleashed firefights that killed 10 military personnel and 19 suspected members of the Sinaloa drug cartel, according to authorities. AP Photo/Martin Urista

The recent arrest of Ovidio Guzmán, son of the infamous Mexican drug cartel leader Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, made international news not only because of the identity of the suspect but because of the unprecedented violence his foot soldiers waged in the Sinaloa state of Mexico in the aftermath.

Guzmán’s arrest took place on Jan. 5 near Culiacán, the capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa. The operation reportedly planned by the Mexican forces for six months left 29 people, including 10 military personnel, dead. 

While the captive was quickly airlifted to Mexico City, his gang—Los Chapitos, presumably, a faction of the Sinaloa Cartel—set up roadblocks, burned vehicles and engaged in shootouts with the authorities, using machine guns and 50-caliber rifles, capable of penetrating armored vehicles. The violence spread from Culiacán, where Guzmán was born in 1990, to other parts of the state.

“The violence that ensued was just a desperate attempt to stop something that had already happened,” says Pablo Calderon Martinez, assistant professor of politics and international relations at Northeastern University-London. 

Guzmán was arrested once before in 2019, but the authorities had to release him because the cartel threatened public safety. 

Guzmán’s arrest might mean justice for hundreds of victims of the Sinaloa cartel and families that were destroyed by the drug trade and its violence, Calderon Martinez says. But otherwise, it doesn’t change Mexico’s struggle with drug trafficking and drug cartels.

Geography makes Mexico particularly vulnerable to drug-related activity, Calderon Martinez says.

The Mexico-United States border is the busiest border in the world. It is also the tenth longest land border between two countries. Trillions of dollars in goods and services are moved back and forth, Calderon Martinez says, and the busy, porous border allows for the movement of drugs.

Mexican cartels make big money not on making illegal drugs or selling them, but on moving drugs to the U.S.—the largest drug market. 

“That is why Mexican drug organizations became more prosperous than Colombian organizations,” Calderon Martinez says.

They control billions of dollars in capital and cash, he says. This money can buy them weapons, vehicles and soldiers. Cartels run their own armies and pay salaries.

“It is just impossible to expect local law enforcement to challenge what is basically a well-funded military force,” Calderon Martinez says.

Only the armed forces of Mexico and Mexican Navy could really fight cartels, he says, but it takes time to mobilize them to a particular location across the country.

“The state has to make a decision as to how much it spends on fighting a drug cartel and a criminal organization and other things that the state needs to do,” Calderon Martinez says, meaning, for example, expenditures on education or health care.

Calderon Martinez believes that it is simply impossible to get rid of drug trafficking organizations. As drug dealers buy cars, watches, houses and food, drug money becomes integral to the Mexican economy, he says, and the realistic best outcome is to pacify these organizations to a great extent to co-exist peacefully.

“Because of the issue of resources you can’t try to fight them at the same time. That’s what’s going to lead to huge outbursts of violence as we saw [in Sinaloa],” he says. “The population doesn’t want to see that.” 

Polls conducted in the aftermath of the violence in Sinaloa showed that a substantial number of respondents both on the local and on the national level felt less secure after the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán than they did before, says Nikos Passas, professor of criminology and criminal justice and co-director of Institute for Security and Public Policy.

“That shows you a level of fear, a level of questioning of the state’s authority, and [that] the relationship between the government and the citizens is not optimal,” he says. 

Citizens start to mistrust not only the government at the highest level but also local law enforcement agencies and the military.

“That is institutional corruption in the sense that what the government is there to do is to serve a collective good, the public interest, [but it] is unable to do its job, either because people are compromised, or because they are unable,” Passas says. 

He points out that when crime groups act extremely violently like in Sinaloa, it indicates that they are disorganized and are going through turmoil. There is competition between different players and a fight for power because there is a lot of money to be made on some illegal product that is in high demand.

There are a lot of tools in a government’s toolbox to tackle such complex problems as drug cartels in Mexico, Passas says. The first step is to identify the challenges and the costs with each option of action, and then do the planning in order to shelter anyone who is affected negatively by whatever option is taken.

“It’s not just bodies behind the bars. It is not just money seized and confiscated. It is about fewer sick people, fewer addicted people, fewer dead people, fewer people who are tempted to get in this market either as users or facilitators for perpetrators,” he says.

It’s important to go after the major culprits like Guzmáns, because foot soldiers are easily replaceable, he says. But the approach needs to be strategic and holistic. 

It should include risk and cost-benefit analysis of different options, take into account public health perspective, legal perspective, governance issues on local and national levels, political science perspective, international relations and international cooperation. 

The drug trade problem has the demand and the supply sides, Passas says. 

“If you do little about the demand, for example, and there is huge profit to be made, then the cost of doing business goes up and the incentive to do it in ways that neutralize the acts of government controls and international intervention goes up,” he says.

If addressing the supply side is given a priority or more resources, any law enforcement activities lead to indirect costs in the form of collateral damage.

Such costs can include negative effects on the quality of people’s life in the area, deaths among regular citizens caught in the crossfire, deaths among NGO workers and journalists who have been doing their job conscientiously or among their loved ones.

To minimize the demand a government can use policy and laws, Passas says. 

As for Ovidio Guzmán, Mexico is legally enabled to extradite him to the U.S., he says. It can pass on the headache of dealing with Guzmán to an environment that is more secure and avoid further collateral damage.

The U.S. government is quite keen on Guzmán’s extradition. It issued a warrant for Guzmán’s arrest on Sep. 19, 2019, and had offered up to $5 million for information on his whereabouts before the recent arrest. 

His father, El Chapo, was extradited to the U.S. in January 2017 after he escaped prison twice in Mexico. He was convicted on 10 counts of engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, drug trafficking, money laundering and conspiracy to commit murder and is serving a life plus 30 years sentence in an American prison. 

“I am guessing he is going to be extradited to the U.S. in a few months after some political bargaining,” Calderon Martinez says. “On the one hand, it’s good to keep him in Mexico, prosecute him in Mexico and send to jail in Mexico.” 

The Mexican authorities would have to decide what is the best political outcome for them, he says. For now, a Mexico City federal judge halted Guzmán’s extradition to the U.S. on Jan. 6.

“It may seem a good move to extradite him after the due process to show cooperation in the fight against drugs,” he says. 

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at a.kuzub@northeastern.edu. Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.