On January 31, 2019, US Customs and Border Protection announced its “biggest fentanyl bust ever,” 254 pounds of the synthetic opioid, discovered hidden under the floor of a tractor-trailer chock-full of Mexican contraband bound for Arizona and beyond. “Our great U.S. Border Patrol Agents made the biggest Fentanyl bust in our Country’s history,” then-President Donald Trump tweeted, back when he could still do that. “Thanks, as always, for a job well done!”
Local cops, the Border Patrol, and DEA agents, of course, have a self-congratulatory streak: It makes sense that they repeatedly tell us they’ve made the biggest, most disruptive drug bust in history. So then why was the January 31, 2019, fentanyl seizure in Arizona, with its estimated street value of just $3.5 million, worth mentioning? It turns out that this seizure coincided with the deliberations of a jury in Brooklyn concerning the fate of one Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, otherwise known as “El Chapo,” the longtime leader of Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel. Even with El Chapo behind bars, the Sinaloa Cartel remains one of Mexico’s—and for that matter, the world’s—most dominant drug trafficking organizations, smuggling vast amounts of meth, fentanyl, and cocaine across the border with the United States.
Journalist Noah Hurowitz covered the sprawling, three-month-long trial of El Chapo, which concluded with Guzmán being given a life sentence, plus 30 years for good measure. Hurowitz’s comprehensive coverage of El Chapo’s trial turned into a book, El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord. Toward the end of it, Hurowitz makes a point to pause on the meaning of that history-making Arizona fentanyl bust that occurred while his subject’s fate was being decided in Brooklyn.
“El Chapo was newly convicted, but he’d already been in the United States for more than two years. Any notion that his absence from Mexico would put a dent in the drug trade was a fantasy,” Hurowitz observes. Mainstream coverage of El Chapo’s trial often veered into lurid spectacle, rarely questioning bedrock assumptions about America’s drug war. The conviction has not ended the flow of illicit fentanyl into the United States, or the 93,000 overdose deaths in 2020, a 21,000 jump from the year before, shattering all previous records. The drug trade continues unabated, El Chapo or no.
If it’s suddenly in vogue to call the drug war a stupendous failure, then how come, no matter which political party is in power, or whatever new kingpin is extradited to America, this so-called drug war never, ever ends? Hurowitz and I discuss this paradox, as well as the limits of storytelling centered around single individuals, the question of whether cartels function like multinational corporations, and the history of drug policy in Mexico—like that one time, in the 1940s, when the country briefly legalized drugs.
ZS: So what’s the explanation, then, of how a rural farm boy born in 1957 in La Tuna, this remote, impoverished mountain village, came to be one of the most powerful drug traffickers in the world? How much does the story of El Chapo—Joaquín Guzmán, as an individual—explain his rise to power?
NH: Across historical periods and places, I’ve always been interested in the transition of a person from someone living in normal circumstances to one living in circumstances where they control world historical evil, cruelty, and power. What drove a lot of my research was trying to understand the personal story of how El Chapo got where he did, in addition to the historical and material realities that paved his path.
I don’t think that El Chapo was this singularly talented drug trafficker. He was ambitious, for sure. But, there were other people from his region and time period who harbored the same vision, and who were maybe at times even more powerful than he was.
El Chapo was part of a generation of people who grew up at a very transitional time in the drug trade. The marijuana demand of the baby boomer, postwar era had just started to increase in the United States. A lot of Mexican families in Sinaloa started making considerable money as a result. In the early 1970s, Nixon and his DOJ shut down the “French connection” heroin pipeline from Turkey to Marseille to New York. And as always happens in the drug trade, you have this balloon effect, where the demand must be filled somehow. So the production of opium and heroin in Sinaloa started to increase. People like El Chapo, like Beltrán-Leyva, El Mayo, and El Azul, were there to make money from that demand. At this same moment, we see the introduction of cocaine, which turbocharged everything.
ZS: The profits, and thus the stakes, started rising dramatically.
NH: The profit margins were just incomparable. You can make a good living smuggling weed and heroin into the United States. But it’s risky, because these drugs in bulk have a strong smell and the packages are very big. The Iron Law of Prohibition says that people will traffic in smaller, more potent, and more compact substances to evade detection, as we’re seeing with illicit fentanyl now. So cocaine started coming in from Colombia, bouncing off of the so-called trampoline in Mexico and into the United States. Mexicans who had the smuggling infrastructure to move drugs made connections with people in Colombia and suddenly made exponentially more money moving cocaine. That meant more money to influence local cops and local judges, more money to pump into the local economy—all of this meant more power.
If El Chapo had been born in 1935, he probably would still have been a drug trafficker. He might’ve even been a big drug trafficker. But you can’t separate him from the historical period in which he made his bond.
ZS: You write, “The best way of understanding the drug trade is this: it is a capitalist enterprise in Mexico, and as such it has always had a corrupt and fuzzy relationship with the state—and has always been subject to the coercive demands and fickle priorities of U.S. foreign policy.” What do you make of the comparison that drug cartels function like other multinational corporations?
NH: I appreciate the comparison to corporations, because in some ways I think that the comparison of so-called drug cartels to corporations is vastly overstated and vastly oversimplified. There’s this idea, in the United States, of the Sinaloa cartel or the Jalisco New Generation Cartel or the Gulf Cartel being a highly organized business. It’s much more informal than some think. Even within the more stable factions, there is some form of group identity, but that identity is also informed by cultural mores. There is a meta understanding of the Sinaloa Cartel within the Sinaloa Cartel.
ZS: Like, a kind of social reproduction happening, as in, how they’re portrayed in the media influences how they understand themselves?
NH: You know how, in The Sopranos, they love watching gangster movies? There’s some of that going on here. But these are groups of organized criminals, working together sometimes and beefing with each other at other times. There are coherent subgroups, but the whole idea of the Sinaloa Cartel as one coherent group or organization is, I think, false. But, that being said, I thought a lot about who El Chapo is, and morally, what he’s responsible for.
The way that I started to think about him was: What if he was the vice president at a company like Nestlé? Stealing water from communities (and abetting child labor). I’m sure that there were executives there who went home and had dinner with their family and put their kids to bed and were nice guys, and they did evil acts. So I had this goal to understand individually who El Chapo was, while also pointing out the limits of an individual analysis of the drug trade.
Ultimately, as I concluded, El Chapo was a powerful capitalist in a market that incentivized violence due to the nature of drug prohibition. He was as responsible for the harm that happened as the CEOs of multinational corporations are responsible for actions on the ground that they may not have specifically ordered, but the blood is still on their hands.
ZS: There’s a fascinating part of your book about Operation Intercept, in which President Richard Nixon completely jammed up the US-Mexico border to, allegedly, stop drug trafficking. Can you talk about why America pulled off a stunt like that, and how US policy, as you write, plays a “coercive” role in the drug war?
NH: So, we do have open borders—not for people, but open borders for capital. Ultimately, both of America’s major political parties answer to the almighty demands of capital. I found Operation Intercept to actually be really instructive. Operation Intercept lasted for 21 days. At the end of that, The New York Times published an editorial saying it was a complete failure, that this was a debacle. G. Gordon Liddy, who later became one of the fall guys for Watergate, reflected in a memoir that people only called Operation Intercept a failure because they didn’t know what the true objective was. Liddy said that Operation Intercept was a tremendous success, because America made a point. They weren’t really trying to stop drugs; he said it was an act of diplomatic extortion.
Now, there’s an increased understanding that the drug war is a failure. It makes some sense. It is obviously a failure. El Chapo was arrested for the last time more than five years ago, and the flow of drugs has not stopped. We know that. You could arrest all of them: El Mayo, El Mencho, you could arrest every kingpin from Guerrero to Tamaulipas, and you still wouldn’t stop the flow of drugs. Prohibition has failed, obviously. But I think about G. Gordon Liddy when I think about people calling the drug war a failure, because it’s actually working for a lot of people. It’s working for the guys who write the budget of the DEA; it’s working for the rear admiral who goes to the Congressional Armed Services Committee to ask for more money: for more interdiction in the Pacific, for more surveillance flights in Colombia. The DEA budget has gone from $65 million in 1973 when it was founded to just over $3 billion today.
ZS: One reason I cover drugs is that, in the public discourse, I read drugs as a very malleable political football. Fighting a drug war has functioned as a sort of sideshow battle in a larger political project, an excuse to incarcerate millions of people, to restrict immigration, to crush communist governments in Latin America—whatever the end, drugs can be molded as a means to achieve it. So, who is benefiting, and who is getting screwed?
NH: The drug war is working really badly for a lot of people. It’s really not going great for most Mexicans. It’s really not going great for even most people growing opium in Sinaloa; it’s not going great for them because now everyone’s just trafficking fentanyl. But the drug war is working out well enough for enough people and enough institutions—be it politicians who use MS-13 as scapegoats in a scaremongering strategy or weapons manufacturers who sell arms 10 miles from the border—that it will continue.
They all have their own way of justifying it. I think there are a lot of DEA agents and cops and tough-on-crime politicians who genuinely believe that you can’t legalize drugs, that you can’t regulate drugs, or you can’t have safe injection sites, that you can’t have a safe supply—but they are wrong. One thing that I didn’t get too much into in my book is that the Mexican government legalized drugs pretty much across the board in 1940. [The law created clinics across Mexico that allowed people to access a safe, controlled supply of whatever drug they were addicted to.] Mexico did not see that experiment come to fruition, because the United States basically forced Mexico to abandon it. Who knows what would have happened, but probably, like the illegal drug trade, the legal industry in Mexico would have been corrupt and brutal and bad. But it still wouldn’t have been as bad as it is now. But still, I think sometimes about what might’ve been.