Notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán received a life sentence last week after a U.S. federal jury found him guilty on 10 charges related to his 25-year run as the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s dominant criminal organization. Throughout the three-month trial, prosecutors portrayed Guzmán as a ruthless gangster who built a sophisticated criminal network through an army of drug traffickers, enforcers, and killers for hire who terrorized and murdered thousands, laundered billions of dollars, bribed government officials, corrupted Mexico’s state institutions, and flooded the United States with narcotics. Guzmán has now been moved to Colorado’s supermax prison, where he will spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement for the rest of his life.
A few hours after the verdict in Brooklyn, a reporter asked Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador his opinion on Guzman’s fate. “I am sorry cases like this happen,” López Obrador said. “I don’t want anyone to end up in jail. … I’m an idealist. I believe in love, in fraternity and happiness. I bear no ill will toward anyone.” López Obrador then explained how he hoped “every Mexican” could one day have the chance “to be happy without the need for any illicit act.” When it came to Guzmán, López Obrador struck a somber, almost sad tone. “It’s a wretched life to have a family and not be able to see them,” he said. He went on. “A life sentence like this, in a hostile jail like this, a harsh, inhumane jail … well, I find that very moving,” he said.
It is not the first time López Obrador has either failed to convincingly denounce Guzman’s brutality or has chosen to help the now convicted drug lord. In February, Consuelo Loera, Guzmán’s mother, sent López Obrador a letter asking for his assistance. She wanted her son returned to a Mexican prison or for her and her two daughters to receive humanitarian visas to visit Guzmán in the United States. López Obrador took kindly to the letter. Loera had requested help “like any mother would when it comes to her son,” he said. A few days later, López Obrador announced he had decided to help Guzmán’s Mexican relatives. “I have given instructions so that we can assist his sisters with [American] rules and regulations so that they can visit him,” he said. In early June, Consuelo Loera said she had finally received a humanitarian visa. The U.S. government has not confirmed that the visa was granted.
Why has López Obrador shown such compassion to a man who is arguably the most infamous criminal in Mexican history?
Univision journalist Gerardo Reyes, an experienced Colombian reporter who has covered Guzmán for years, told me he found López Obrador’s consideration for the drug lord hard to comprehend. For Reyes, Guzmán’s recent trial offered enough evidence to make commiseration impossible. He gave me an example. “We found out Guzmán hired a physician to keep a certain prisoner alive so he could torture him further,” Reyes said.
When Reyes asked Eduardo Balarezo, one of Guzmán’s lawyers, who he thought had been the most damaging witness against his client, Balarezo chose Isaías Valdez, one of Guzman´s “sicarios,” or hired assassins. Valdez told the court of Guzman’s numerous atrocities, including burying rival gangsters alive and burning the bodies of people Guzmán had personally “beaten to a pulp, their limp bodies like rag dogs, every bone broken.” Reyes told me testimonies like this “completely destroyed the myth” that Guzmán was a misunderstood, nonviolent man of peace. “If you add the deranged parties with underage girls whom Guzmán drugged and raped, López Obrador’s humanist sensibilities can only come from ignorance,” Reyes said.
Novelist Don Winslow agrees. Winslow, the author of an acclaimed trilogy about the drug war inspired in part by Guzmán, is also a frequent critic of Mexican politics, past and present. “I keep waiting for the day that the Mexican government feels more compassion for the people of Mexico than the drug traffickers,” he told me. For Winslow, López Obrador’s insistence on tiptoeing around Guzmán’s atrocities speaks “to the massive corruption” in the country. “If the president wants to have compassion for someone, he should start with the families that have been destroyed by El Chapo’s drugs, violence and murder,” Winslow said. “When he’s done with that, he can have compassion for the brave Mexican journalists murdered for just doing their jobs.”
Others offer a more nuanced view, though. For Daniel Moreno, a journalist who runs Animal Político, a hard-hitting investigative news site in Mexico, López Obrador was wrong in offering public sympathy for Guzmán. “I didn’t like his answer because he did not include a similar expression [of compassion] for the victims,” he told me. And yet, Moreno insists that, while López Obrador’s response was a mistake, the president might have hinted at a more complex and urgent debate for Mexico.
“Has Guzmán been a victim as well?” Moreno asked. “I think it’s unavoidable that we, as a country, need to admit our share of the blame. What are we offering people to help them avoid organized crime? How will we truly fight crime when there is such impunity?”
Moreno is right. While Joaquín Guzmán might be a monster, he is also our monster. Mexico will have to reckon with his legacy for years to come.