Don’t Extradite El Chapo

The Mexican government won’t win against the cartels unless it can prove it can lock them away.

Marines present Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to the press in Mexico City after his arrest on Feb. 22, 2014.
Marines present Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to the press in Mexico City after his arrest on Feb. 22, 2014.

Photo by Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

It wasn’t just that they got him; it’s also how they got him.

Mexican navy commandos, working in tandem with U.S. law enforcement officials, arrested the world’s most wanted drug lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, in a drab midrise condo in the Pacific resort of Mazatlán early Saturday morning. He was reportedly in bed with a woman and didn’t even have time to reach for his AK-47. The security army he usually traveled with was nowhere in sight; there was no epic last stand, not even a single shot. 

Rather than the romanticized, untouchable capo of narco-culture lore, El Chapo, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel whom Forbes has listed on its annual rankings of billionaires, seemed like a middle-aged man tired of running, hiding away in a decidedly unglamorous building favored by middle-class Mexican families and Canadian retirees.   Where’s the telenovela or narcocorrido in that? The forces pursuing Guzmán had nearly captured him earlier in the week in his hometown of Culiacán, before he fled into a tunnel, and many of his lieutenants had been rounded up in recent weeks. American law enforcement’s tracking of cellphone conversations among Guzmán’s cronies proved crucial to the operation.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the atmospherics—the anti-climactic, outright boring atmospherics—surrounding Guzmán’s capture. Mexican public opinion has long considered Guzmán (who escaped once before from a maximum-security prison in Mexico, allegedly in a laundry bin) a near-mythical figure capable of outsmarting, outspending, and outgunning the Mexican government. Every aspect of the drug lord’s capture punctures this image and helps to shift perceptions about the cartels’ power relative to that of the Mexican state. Decreasing violence in many of the drug wars’ hot spots and impressive wins by law enforcement against the notoriously violent Zetas’ cartel have also contributed to these shifting perceptions.

For President Enrique Peña Nieto, the capture of Guzmán is a significant victory that puts to rest any lingering questions about whether he shared his predecessor Felipe Calderón’s commitment to take on the cartels. He clearly does, though he has smartly downgraded his personal identification with the fight. Calderón came across as obsessed with his crusade against the cartels and seemed to talk about little else in his six years in office. In contrast, Peña Nieto understood that merely by changing the topic he could alter how people perceive the scope of the problem. Since taking office 14 months ago, Peña Nieto has made his obsession the package of transformative reforms he pushed through Congress—on education, energy, trusts, and so on—and delegated the drug violence (and the messaging around it) to his security team, signaling to the Mexican people that he (and they) had bigger worries. His government’s subsequent triumphs against the various cartels only seem magnified by the fact that they haven’t been his top priority.

No one is pretending that the drug trade will be disrupted overnight because of the Sinaloa Cartel CEO’s capture. Of all the trafficking organizations, Sinaloa’s was the most sophisticated and businesslike, with a global supply chain and a well-oiled distribution network throughout the United States. But for Mexicans, exhausted from eight years of horrific violence triggered by the federal government taking on the cartels and from the cartels fighting against each other for trade routes and market share, disrupting the flow of drugs northward is not the main objective. They simply want an end to the spectacular violence that until recently made cities like Ciudad Juárez and Monterrey and states like Tamaulipas and now Michoacán nearly ungovernable. 

Mexican public opinion has little appetite for waging an unconditional war to completely wipe out the drug trade, assuming that were even possible. That is seen as a fool’s errand, or at the very least an errand done for Americans eager to outsource the fight to Mexicans. The move by some U.S. states to decriminalize drug use has further reinforced widespread disgust in Mexico at the idea of Mexican police officers, soldiers, and small-town civic leaders being killed to prevent Americans from lighting up.

The Peña Nieto administration’s frontal assault on the Zetas and its dogged pursuit of Guzmán should be seen as an effort to reassert the supremacy of state power. The goal is less to drive all drug traders out of business than to dissuade these organizations from terrorizing the population with violent crime. Peña Nieto can’t come out and say this too explicitly, but given the choice of ending the drug trade or ending violence, he’d probably settle for the latter. It’s not a matter of making deals with bad guys, as conspiracy-mongers love to suggest, but of setting priorities.

Conventional wisdom suggests that violence and mayhem increase when the established head Mafioso is taken out, as underlings retaliate and engage in bloody turf battles. It’s not clear, though, whether this will happen in Sinaloa. Mexico’s cartels have already had brutal turf battles over the past decade, and if Guzmán’s successors are as rational as reports suggest, they would be well-advised not to ratchet up the violence and to hope that the Mexican state’s fury will be focused on continuing the fight against the Zetas and bringing the central state of Michoacán (currently besieged by another cartel) under control.

The acknowledged role of the U.S. government in the capture of Guzmán is also significant and should put to rest concerns that the Peña Nieto administration was radically rolling back the level of cooperation with American agencies that Calderón’s team had embraced. Upon taking office, Peña Nieto’s team was reportedly surprised by how embedded American officials were across a number of Mexican agencies, and they moved to consolidate and coordinate the bilateral exchanges in one office. Washington at first worried that this reflected a lessened appetite to fight the cartels, but even before the success of this operation, U.S. officials had been assuaged that the changes reflected an internal reorganization of Mexico’s security apparatus and were not driven by a desire to end American involvement in the effort.

The Mexican government has proven that it is far from powerless in the face of these world-class mafias, that it can hunt down and overpower their chiefs. The greater challenge for Peña Nieto now is proving to the Mexican people, and to his northern neighbor, that Mexico’s judicial system is capable of trying and incarcerating for good (in such a manner that he can no longer pull strings behind the scenes) someone as powerful as Guzmán. It is on these fronts where Mexico has yet to demonstrate that it is a democracy with a resilient and entrenched rule of law.

Prosecutors across the United States are lining up to demand that Guzmán be extradited to face trial in their jurisdictions, and plenty of people on both sides of the border find this a desirable prospect—the best guarantee that Guzmán is locked away for good. 

But that is not the best long-term solution for either nation. The impulse to extradite drug kingpins to the United States (in cases where the bulk of their crimes took place in Mexico) is akin to the impulse in this country to send terrorist suspects off to Guantánamo. It’s essentially a surrender, a recognition that the system can’t handle such cases.

In Mexico’s case, sadly, that’s often been true. But that has to change for the country’s successes against the cartels to have lasting meaning. Mexico needs to dispense justice on behalf of Mexicans. The likes of “El Chapo” Guzmán can’t only appear to be defeated and diminished on the day of their apprehension but forever afterwards as well.

A version of this piece also appeared in the New America Foundation’s Weekly Wonk.