The arrest of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán hit the news this morning, making headlines across the U.S. and Mexico. The U.S. government has toted this arrest as a huge win for both Americans and Mexicans, as El Chapo has been like a ghost for so long, evading capture even just last week when Marines thought they had him surrounded and locked in a room. But he escaped through a series of tunnels linked to the room and through the fingers of law enforcement once again—until now. And though the Mexican government may consider the El Chapo arrest a huge success, it is likely that it could incite violence in Mexico and cause hundreds of non-cartel deaths.
For those of you who don’t know him, “El Chapo” Guzmán, known by his nickname “Shorty” in English, has been atop the most wanted list for more than 13 years, ever since he broke out of a top security prison. Intelligence says that his cartel, Sinaloa, has controlled perhaps as much as half of the illegal drugs that make their way into the U.S. each year, and El Chapo has profited fully from them. For a while, he was placed on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people. The U.S. government put a price on Guzmán’s head of $5M and hope that his capture will lead to U.S. extradition.
El Chapo’s arrest happened while he was sleeping, too quickly for him to reach to grab the AK-47 next to his bed, and he was arrested without a single shot fired. And while optimists may believe that the drug kingpin’s arrest will lead to fewer drugs on the street and less violence, seeing as the Mexican drug war has caused nearly 80,000 lives over the past eight years. However, it seems more likely that El Chapo’s arrest will incite more violence in Mexico.
The obvious man to step up and take the reins is the Sinaloa Cartel’s second in command, Ismael Zambaba or “El Mayo”. While El Chapo’s leadership meant that the Sinaloa Cartel acted on its own, under Zambaba’s leadership, they may ally themselves with other smaller cartels, which could give the cartel a powerful boost and keep drugs flowing into the U.S. normally. It could also step up the violence between Mexican police and the cartels, battles which often take place very publically.
While Zambaba is the natural successor to the cartel, the power vacuum El Chapo’s arrest has caused may give others in the cartel ideas. El Chapo and El Mayo’s children may now see the need to duke it out for leadership in the next generation, splitting the loyalties of the cartel and creating violence between the two sides. If this happens, it will likely cause waves of violence that will lead to even more civilian deaths as the cartels take to trying to off one another in the middle of public streets.
This isn’t the first time a drug lord has been arrested, either. The head of the Zetas Cartel, Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, was arrested last year, as well as El Chapo’s brother Miguel Guzmán and Edgar Valdez Villareal. Each time, the arrest of the head of the cartel simply led to another filling the space and business continuing as usual. Cartels also tend to knock off leadership in their own gangs, and with constant deaths on all sides of the warring cartels, members are accustomed to stepped into another’s place and filling their shoes until the person above them dies.
While the arrest of El Chapo is definitely a success for the American and Mexican governments, the violence it may incite could be worse than when the drug lord was in power. This doesn’t mean that we should give ground or give up in the war against the cartels—it simply means that we should continue to cut the head off the beast until it stops regrowing them.
By Marisa Corley