If you’ve been reading the news lately, you may have heard about the recapture of notorious drug lord Joaquín Guzmán, better known as ‘El Chapo,’ or ‘The Shorty.’ Guzmán’s brazen escape from a high-security Mexican prison in 2014 was detailed in one of our earlier blogs.
He was recaptured earlier this week after nearly 6 months on the run, with U.S. and Mexican authorities hailing the arrest as a massive win in the war against drugs.
Who is Guzman?
As leader of the notorious Sinaloa Cartel, Guzmán regularly ranks as one of the world’s most powerful drug traffickers – with the Drug Enforcement Adminstration (DEA) naming him ‘the godfather of the drug world’ and claiming he is even more influential than Pablo Escobar.
The Sinaloa Cartel is renowned for smuggling huge quantities of methamphetamine, marijuana, ecstasy, cocaine and heroin into the United States, and Guzmán himself is believed to have smuggled more drugs into the U.S than anyone else in history.
If those claims are true, some might think that Guzmán’s arrest will help win the fight against drugs – but in reality, it will have little or no impact.
Here’s are just a few reasons why:
1. Guzmán Can Run His Empire Behind Bars
Prison is supposed to deter people from committing crimes – but not in Guzmán’s case. He spent over seven years in prison prior to his first escape in 2001 – during which his empire flourished.
Guzmán has the ability to control his operations from behind bars, aided by his brother – and he uses the corrupt Mexican prison system to his advantage, even bribing guards to help orchestrate his first escape.
This is simply a case where prison will act as no deterrence either for other drug lords (because they have no regard for the law anyhow) or the powerful Guzmán himself.
2. The Laws of Supply and Demand
From an economic perspective, arresting one of the big drug kingpins will do little to stop the drug trade.
Even if Guzmán’s arrest leads to a decrease in supply, drug users will be willing to pay a premium to source their drugs elsewhere – which, in turn, will fund further drug activity.
For users – especially those who use highly addictive substances such as cocaine, ice or heroin – drugs are a lifeblood for survival, just like food and water. Simply taking away one drug source and jacking up prices won’t impact on whether they will be purchased.
This is one of the reasons why the war on drugs is so ineffective compared to harm minimisation strategies. Drug users will continue to take drugs regardless of the risk or price, so our best bet is reducing the harm associated with drug use through better regulation and the provision of adequate health services.
3. There Are Plenty of Other Cartels Out There
While the Sinaloa Cartel is widely regarded as the biggest, the fact remains that there are plenty of other powerful drug cartels which are more than capable of supplying drugs to the United States.
The Los Zetas, Gulf, Tijuana, Knights Templar and Juárez cartels each control major trafficking routes between the United States and Mexico – and there are dozens of other major cartels scattered throughout South and Central America. Even if the Sinaloa Cartel were disbanded, another would simply step into its place.
Indeed, history has many examples of this occurring. For instance, when the once-powerful Tijuana cartel was fragmented during early 21st century, the Sinaloa cartel simply stepped in to fill the gaps. The same fate will likely befall the Sinaloa cartel if it is affected by Guzmán’s recapture: another rival cartel will simply seize the opportunity to gain new territory.
For those and other reasons, the US Department of Homeland Security admitted in 2001 that ‘there is no perceptible pattern that correlates either a decrease or increase in drug seizures due to the removal of key [drug cartel] personnel.’