This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
On February 22, the US and Mexican governments caught the Big Fish. Mexican Navy forces and police walked into a beachside condominium and arrested Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, head of the immensely powerful Sinaloa cartel, without firing a shot.
The weeks since have been packed with details of the capture, which was surprisingly undramatic. Self-congratulatory remarks and speculation about what happens next are the order of the day here. While many Mexicans are skeptical about any real change resulting from the capture, US government officials have heralded the beginning of the end for the Sinaloa cartel.
There isn’t enough public information yet to measure whether drug flows to the US market have been interrupted or how the cartel is responding. If experience is any indication—and it usually is—the loss of El Chapo will neither disrupt cartel operations nor end the violence.
As the undisputed head of a global criminal enterprise, El Chapo Guzmán was one of the few people in the world on both the most-wealthy list (Forbes listed him at No. 67, with an estimated yearly income of $3 billion) and the most-wanted list (the US government had a $5 million reward out for him).
Yet for thirteen years, Guzmán dodged law enforcement after escaping from a Mexican high-security prison in 2001. His uncanny ability to slip out of the noose, along with other indications, led to a commonly held belief in Mexico that the US and Mexican governments were favoring the giant Sinaloa cartel as they killed and arrested high-level members of rival cartels. El Chapo’s arrest knocks a hole in the theory, although it remains to be seen how the cartel will reorganize relations internally and with government officials.
For now, all viable scenarios add up to more, rather than less, drug-war violence in Mexico. The kingpin strategy of taking out capos has been found to provoke battles for succession and turf wars, so the nation is braced for a wave of violence.
Relations between the drug lord, the government and Mexican society are anything but a typical cops-and-robbers story. El Chapo had, and still has, politicians and security forces on his payroll throughout the country. His organization provides employment and social services to communities, as well as sowing fear and bloodshed.
In Guzmán’s home state of Sinaloa and the neighboring state of Durango, residents have protested his capture. Melissa Montenegro, who organized one of the marches, told the Mexican news site Sin Embargo that El Chapo “has done more for us than any government” in fighting hunger and poverty in the region. The Mexican government dismissed the marchers, claiming that most are relatives of the criminal.