El Chapo Arrested — What Now?

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The most notorious of drug traffickers, El Chapo Guzman, was taken into custody by Mexican authorities in a pre-dawn raid February 22.  The question most asked as Guzman was placed in his cell — What impact will this have on drugs coming into the United States?

It is an interesting and important question.  Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel is responsible for trafficking the majority of the drugs into this country. In fact, Chicago authorities last year designated Guzman as Public Enemy Number One, laying the blame for much of the city’s violence on El Chapo.  Guzman was only the second criminal in Chicago history to be so named, joining famous gangster Al Capone in this exclusive mobster hall of fame.

Guzman is a cold killer and we all can celebrate his capture.  The Mexican authorities and the DEA deserve a lot of credit for tracking down and arresting Guzman. And while Guzman was an effective and ruthless leader, to believe his removal will have a significant impact on drug trafficking into this country is to believe in the tooth fairy. Guzman’s organization, like any other enterprise, has a number of experienced and able operators ready and anxious to take control. There are also competing cartels which would quickly fill the vacuum should the Sinaloa Cartel begin to falter. Guzman is certainly one of the big fish out there, but every day, on a local and national level, neighborhood drug dealers as well as major “drug kingpins” are locked up.  We can always celebrate the arrests of violent offenders but only those drinking the prohibition Kool Aid believe these busts have any lasting impact.

It is instructive to remember how the Capone Cartel, which controlled the illegal alcohol market in Chicago, was dismantled.  It was not the Untouchables and FBI Agents like Elliot Ness who brought down Capone.  It was the end of Prohibition, which took away Capone’s business and returned it to farmers, wineries, brewers, truck drivers, bars, restaurants and retail outlets.

The lesson for dealing with today’s cartels is clear.  We can continue the 50 year War on Drugs or we can legalize drugs and take the economic foundation out from under the cartels.  They will be out of business and drug pushers in our neighborhood and drug kingpins in Mexico will join Capone in the history books.

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As a postscript, you may be wondering what life in jail will be like for a cartel leader like El Chapo.  In the late 90’s Guzman was locked up in a maximum security jail in Mexico.  His escape in 2001 is believed to have been abetted by prison authorities.  His jail experience there is outlined in the book Narcoland, a well-written history of the cartels authored by Mexican journalist Anabel Hernandez. Per Hernandez’s writing, Guzman was basically in control of the institution, living lavishly with food, women and drugs delivered to his specially decorated cell. Much of the time, he and his henchmen participated in Viagra-assisted sexual contests utilizing prostitutes, female inmates and jail staff.  Any staff that objected received a visit at their home from Guzman’s associates with the classic offer you can’t refuse.

Hernandez’s book also outlines the extent to which the drug cartels have corrupted the highest levels of the Mexican government.  For anyone seeking better understanding of the power of the drug cartels, the book is a must read.