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Could, should and would the government capture El Chapo?

March 17, 2012


Last Friday’s disturbances in Guadalajara fueled rumors that Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, had finally been caught. While such speculation proved unfounded, authorities did come within a whisker of capturing the billionaire fugitive in Los Cabos recently.

Guzman is the most wanted criminal in both Mexico and the United States, but how important would his arrest be? And would it have positive or negative consequences in Mexico?

Even U.S. officials are in disagreement over the matter. During a recent visit to Mexico, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the United States must pursue Guzman as long as necessary, likening him to that other fugitive finally caught last year: Osama Bin Laden.

But this week General Charles Jacoby, head of the U.S. Northern Command, said the capture of 22 of the 37 most wanted drug lords in Mexico “has not had any positive effects,” as “violence continues to increase.” This is because drug cartels have a Hydra-like quality, in that if you cut off one of their heads, several more grow back in its place.

Guadalajara and most of western Mexico is controlled by Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel and in recent years the region has been relatively calm compared to other parts of Mexico. This is largely due to Guzman’s position of unrivaled power.

If he were to fall the region would become destabilized, with the more bloodthirsty Zetas seeking to taking hold. His capture would also ignite a bloody power struggle within the Sinaloa Cartel, with different factions vying for control of the enormous organization.

Guzman’s arrest would however provide political capital for President Felipe Calderon. Conspiracy theories have circulated in Mexico that the government will finally seize Guzman ahead of the July 1 election to provide the ruling National Action Party (PAN) with a much needed boost in the polls.

Capturing Guzman would transform Calderon’s legacy and put an end to persistent rumors that he has been protecting El Chapo while pursuing his rivals. Yet such a theory supposes that the Mexican authorities are capable of catching one of the most powerful men on earth at a whim. Recent history suggests this is unlikely.

Three weeks ago, Guzman was apparently hiding in a seaside mansion in Los Cabos, only to slip out the back door moments before federal police raided the property. Four of his alleged associates were arrested and are now in custody.

Mexican authorities have come close to capturing their elusive prey on several occasions,  only for him to escape at the last minute. This has caused frustration among U.S. intelligence officials, who often provide their Mexican counterparts with precise information on Guzman’s whereabouts.

The United States tends to hold such information closely until Guzman’s exact address is known, before sharing it with a few key trusted members of the Mexican military or federal police. Yet with Guzman always able to give his chasers the slip, it seems clear that there are leaks in the chain who are tipping him off every time.

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