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The Future of “El Chapo” Guzmán and Latin America’s War on Drugs

By: Gina Kawas - @GinaKawas - Mar 5, 2014, 8:00 am

EspañolOn Saturday, February 22, the world’s most wanted criminal and “Chicago’s public enemy number one,” Joaquín Guzmán Loera, was arrested in a smooth and well organized operation led by Mexican Marines and US Drug Enforcement Administration agents. The question remains, though, will his detainment make a difference in the ongoing War on Drugs that governments in Mexico and the Latin-American region are fighting?

Hardly. Jail for one man is not going to stop the recurring drug problem in Latin America. The conflict is so complex that it far surpasses capturing the kingpin of one of the most famous drug cartels in the world, and Mexico’s criminal elite have demonstrated their ability to retain their positions of power and the corrupt officials who serve as their allies, making the authorities complicit.

Of course, “El Chapo” was one of the most, if not the most, emblematic kingpins of drug cartels, but a list of well-known names is in line to take his place.

Several factors are also at play at the moment, and together they will determine the future that awaits him. If he stays in a Mexican prison, there is a risk of flight or that he may even be freed by a corrupt and intimidated judicial system. He has already escaped before and could make another attempt. We have also seen how the Mexican populace treats cartels with reverence, and have asked for his release. On the other hand, if extradited to United States, his criminal career will definitely come to an end, since he will face multiple charges already initiated against him.

Extradition, however, from a strictly legal perspective, is not an easy exit either. Guzmán has already filed a claim for protection against this possibility, and his lawyers will fight by all means to avoid his transfer to US authorities. Still, if extradited, this would prove to be a more powerful deterrent than his imprisonment in Mexico.

Whether he stays in Mexico or not, though, his arrest does mark an important highlight for Mexican institutions. It will probably not change things on the ground, but capturing one of the most internationally famous drug lords provides an opportunity to build a new strategy to address the drug problem in the main cocaine transit point since the 1980s (following a crackdown on the Colombian cartels). His arrest is a big triumph for President Enrique Peña Nieto, and it could also be a historic turning point for significant changes and an end to an era where drug cartels remain a power within the state. They have taken on many state functions in Mexico, but also in several other Latin-American countries, especially in Central America.

A Change in Course, an End to the Violence

While the idea of having a regulated or legalized drug market still remains taboo for several countries in the region, we must not overlook the fact that in two states of the United States, the production and sale of marijuana has almost the same restrictions as tobacco and alcohol. In several other states, cannabis has the same restrictions as antibiotics or antidepressants. President Barack Obama did not interfere with the recreational legalization of marijuana in Washington and Colorado and has expressed that he does not think marijuana “is more dangerous than alcohol,” showing a permissive attitude towards this and leaving a loophole to further extend this legislation in other states. We can also see the example of Uruguay, where legalization has also taken place.

Several studies, like the one the Lancet medical magazine published in 2010, show that marijuana is three times less harmful than alcohol and slightly less harmful than tobacco.

So, even though the world’s most wanted drug criminal has been imprisoned, in a few years we will be celebrating the capture of a new protagonist of this drug war novel. Unless the rules of the drug business change in the coming years in countries where it is most crude and visible (like Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala), alongside with re-establishing the rule of law, more bullets will be shot and more blood will be shed, because criminality is endemic to drug cartels.

The long-awaited end of the transnational, organized, and criminal drug cartels will not take place as long as police and military operations are the main approach of this War on Drugs; instead, brave and bold transformations to the current legislation (that promotes the illegal functioning of this business) and new policy alternatives need to be discussed and implemented.

Gina Kawas Gina Kawas

Gina Kawas is a Young Voices Advocate from Honduras and a graduate student of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. She has coauthored the book Freedom for the Entrepreneur, published by ANDI and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Follow @GinaKawas.