U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers
Thirteen years ago, Joaquin Guzmán Loera became the boss of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel and a modern-day folk legend. His mythical reign came to an end on Saturday when federal authorities apprehended Guzmán in the resort city of Mazatlán, hailing the arrest as a major victory against a long-time foe. However, for most Mexicans, the man known as “El Chapo” was more elusive than omnipotent, more spectral than corporeal. “He was somebody who existed,” they say, “and [yet] didn’t exist.” While a kingpin dies with his cartel, the cartel can survive — and even thrive — following the death of its leader.
Leading up to the 2012 election, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto seemed well versed in this reality. He condemned the “fighting violence with more violence” approach of the Calderón years and promised to liberate the many communities that had fallen hostage to the drug trade. He asserted that Mexico should not “subordinate to the strategies of other countries” — namely, those of the United States. However, after more than a year on the job, President Peña Nieto seems to be tip toeing an ever-shrinking line between two urgent, and sometimes conflicting, tasks: working with the American government and meeting his people’s demand for immediate relief from drug-related violence.
In their mutual struggle against the cartels, the United States and Mexico have become deeply entwined on matters of national security. The roots of this cooperation can be traced as far back as 1986, when a cocaine epidemic in the U.S. prompted President Reagan to crack down on the Mexican supply chain. The infrastructure of this relationship largely arrived in 2006, when President Bush authorized a $1.9 billion aid package, known as the Merida Initiative, making way for an era of unprecedented cooperation.
Unfortunately, the U.S.-Mexican relationship was to be one-sided from the very beginning. When the U.S. entered the fray, the CIA and DEA inherited near complete control of Mexico’s security apparatus, and faced no problem implementing their signature “kingpin strategy,” which had been so lethal against al-Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite indications that he would curtail the U.S.’s involvement in Mexican affairs, Peña Nieto has seemed ever willing to continue the American-led tactic of targeting kingpins. In fact, over the past several months, the Peña Nieto administration has overseen the capture of some of the most powerful drug magnates in the world: first, a senior commander of the Gulf cartel; then, the leader of Los Zetas; and finally, Joaquin Guzmán Loera.
Even with Guzmán’s enormous wealth and influence, his capture by itself will not hasten the demise of the mighty Sinaloa. Like other drug lords, he was far removed from the day-to-day management of the cartel, and did not command total authority over each of his units. Instead of creating a robust, vertical hierarchy, the Sinaloa along with rival cartels have constructed a horizontal, decentralized chain of command. This means that individual cells can pursue their own agenda and execute their own operations without having to wait for the approval of a top commander. This form of organization has proven an effective blueprint for overcoming the loss of someone like Guzmán. The most resilient cartels have learned to “spread the risk” among several unknown leaders so that no single person has too much critical authority.
Thus, as praise pours in for the Peña Nieto administration, the flow of drugs continues unabated. “It’s bad news for Mazatlán,” residents say. In all likelihood, the arrest of “El Chapo” will lead to a surge in local violence, a period of infighting in which rival cartels will attempt to supersede the incumbent Sinaloa traders in the region. The arrest of thirty or so kingpins in the past five years has rendered this scenario incredibly commonplace, and is surely not what Peña Nieto envisioned when he vowed to pacify the streets.
To make good on his promise, the Peña Nieto administration needs to ditch the kingpin strategy and utilize the U.S. in a more instrumental capacity. The future of bilateral cooperation ought to focus on vetting, registering, and equipping the country’s Rural Defense Corps (RDC). The American government should supply the RDC with real-time intelligence on the whereabouts of individual cells so that members can protect their respective communities. In addition, the U.S. should provide the Rural Defense Corps with a reliable stream of clean funding, since the absence of such aid is what often leads local leaders to resort to corruption.
Instead of trying to minimize the image of violence, Peña Nieto needs to assume a more assertive role in his country’s partnership with the United States. If he truly wants to guarantee a better future for his country, the president must ensure that the arrest of a few kingpins does not become the crowning achievement of his administration.
Demetri Papageorgiou is studying Government and Economics in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University.