WASHINGTON – Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is taking a victory lap of sorts after the capture of drug kingpin Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, the notorious leader of the Sinaloa cartel. But if history is any indication, Guzmán’s fall points to a difficult and likely violent time ahead, both in Mexico and the United States.
Taking out kingpins has enormous benefits but also enormous dangers. Chief among them: the violent aftershocks that play out as rival cartels try to move in on a weakened enemy and old scores are settled within the cartel.
As one recent UN report correctly noted, The key driver of violence is not cocaine, but change: change in the negotiated power relations between and within groups, and with the state.
On the plus side, the command and control chain is disrupted and, at least temporarily, delivery can be disrupted. But this seldom translates into a long-term decline in availability of cocaine.
That’s because even though once solid trafficking structures fragment into many smaller organizations, each less efficient than the original, in aggregate they’re able to move enough cocaine to keep the market relatively stable. Even worse, law enforcement is soon faced with five or six new, smaller but lethal organizations.
Perhaps the most damaging effect of taking out old, established leaders is that they are almost always replaced by younger, more violent and less seasoned leaders as trafficking structures splinter into smaller pieces. This period, lasting from months to years, usually brings a spike in violence.
Given the size and reach of Guzmán’s organization, such violence is likely to play out on both sides of the border now that he is no longer able to call the shots.
While Guzmán has had years to set up a line of succession, such plans seldom play out as planned and can be further disrupted if law enforcement officials can rapidly grab some members of the second tier.
Young triggermen, sensing opportunities or mid-level operatives resentful at being passed over or others with grievances almost always make a violent play for a bigger share of the pie. Old scores are usually settled as rival groups sense weakness and also try to move into new territory. In addition, following a significant arrest there is almost always an internal probe to see who leaked the information to law enforcement, often leading to the killings of scores of suspected informants.
Most of that bloodletting will take place in Mexico, but some could spill into the United States, especially in Chicago. Guzmán had made the city one of his biggest distribution hubs in recent years. Guzmán’s organization had embedded in the Chicago Hispanic community and had also begun widespread heroin distribution as well, according to my law enforcement sources.
Guzmán’s arrest is good for the rule of law and good for Mexico because it destroys the myths of the invincible drug baron. It shows that ultimately a kingpin can be put out of business. What it doesn’t do, though, is suggest that the business itself is going anywhere.