Mazatlan may be 1,900 miles from Tacoma, but Joaquin Guzman’s arrest in that distant city Saturday could reverberate all the way north to this corner of the United States.
As boss of the globe-straddling Sinaloa drug cartel, Guzman – “El Chapo” – was the world’s biggest drug lord and a crime boss on the order of Al Capone. His organization delivers cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and marijuana to American cities by the ton.
The Sinaloa cartel exports murder as well as poison. Pierce County and the Puget Sound region have gotten their share of both as local traffickers have shot each other over market share and deals gone bad.
The drugs won’t stop flowing just because the capo got caught. It’s like killing Osama bin Laden: When the No. 1 guy goes down, the No. 2 guy becomes the new No. 1 guy and the war goes on. Ultimately, Americans keep the Mexican drug trade in business. As long as an affluent country hungers for addictive drugs, somebody’s going to find a way to make money on the demand.
Short term, there may even be a flare-up in the Mexican drug wars if Chapo’s capture leaves enough of a power vacuum to provoke a battle among rival successors.
Still, the Mexico government’s success in bringing Chapo down shouldn’t be underrated. He had been at large – and directing an international enterprise – despite a manhunt that began after his escape from prison in 2001.
Chapo and his Sinaloan allies were masters of intimidation and corruption. They routinely paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes, and maintained high-ranking Mexican officials and entire police departments on their payroll. Over those 13 years, Chapo had wrapped himself in a mystique of invincibility and invisibility. He looked more powerful than the president of Mexico.
On Saturday, the world saw him getting shoved into a helicopter by Mexican marines. So much for the legendary outlaw.
Nor was this a freakish stroke of luck on the part of the government. Mexican leaders have been successfully decapitating drug organizations for months. In the last two years, the government has hobbled the terrifying Zeta cartel by arresting or killing key members of its high command.
Chapo’s arrest was the culmination of a relentless offensive – coordinated with U.S. authorities – that took down a string of Sinoloa lieutenants. Mexico is taking the fun out of running a drug empire. It looks increasingly capable of fracturing the big cartels that have seized control of cities and killed tens of thousands of Mexicans.
Over the last 10 years, the country has looked at times as if it might be broken into narco-states run by the likes of Chapo. His capture is encouraging evidence that the cartels face a tough and determined Mexican government.