Arrest of Mexican drug lord is a gesture to the US, not a sign of change

MEXICO CITY (AP) — The capture of one of the sons of former Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán this week in Mexico was more of an isolated nod to a drug war strategy than the government of the The country has abandoned an indication that the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has changed his mind, according to experts.

The arrest of Ovidio Guzmán in Culiacán, the cartel’s stronghold, on Thursday claimed at least 30 lives: those of 11 members of the army and security forces and 19 alleged hitmen of the group. But analysts predict it will have no impact on the flow of drugs into the United States.

It was a show of force — with armed helicopters, hundreds of soldiers and armored vehicles — at the start of a possible extradition process, rather than an important step in efforts by Mexican authorities to dismantle one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the country. . Perhaps by chance, it happened a few days after Joe Biden’s visit, the first by a US president in almost a decade.

In the first four of the six years of his term, López Obrador has made it clear that going after drug lords is not his priority. When military forces rounded up the young Guzmán in Culiacán in 2019, the president ordered his release to avoid deaths after gunmen began shooting through the city.

The only other major operation during his presidency was that of a Rafael Caro Quintero nursing home last July, just a few days after the meeting between Biden and López Obrador at the White House. At that time, Caro Quintero had more symbolic importance for having ordered the assassination of an agent of the US anti-drug agency DEA decades ago than real weight in the current drug trafficking hierarchy.

“Mexico wants to do at least the bare minimum in terms of fighting drugs,” said Mike Vigil, a former DEA chief of international operations who spent 13 years of his career in the country. “I don’t think this is a sign that there is going to be a more star cooperation, a bilateral collaboration if you prefer, between the United States and Mexico.”

Although the arrest of a criminal is a victory for justice and the rule of law, according to Vigil, the impact on what he considers a “permanent campaign against drugs” is nil. “What we really need to do here in the United States is do a better job in terms of reducing demand.”

This was one of the key talking points when the governments of the two nations announced in late 2021 a new Bicentennial Understanding on Security, Public Health and Secure Communities, which replaced the outdated Merida Initiative.

The agreement was to take a more comprehensive approach to the fight against drugs and the deaths they cause on both sides of the border. But in an example of the frequent disconnect between diplomatic discourse and reality, just two months later the US government announced a $5 million reward for information leading to the capture of any of Chapo’s four sons, including Ovid, a sign that Washington’s strategy against the drug lords was still alive and well.

“The Bicentennial Understanding was a change on paper regarding the perspective to attack drug trafficking and violence with a more important focus on what were the programs supposedly without any public health budget,” said Guadalupe Correa Cabrera, associate professor at George Mason University. In reality, she added, “Mexico is bowing to the interests of the United States.”

For decades, the United States has apprehended drug traffickers from Mexico, Colombia and other points in between, but drugs are as pervasive as ever and deadlier than ever in the country, he added. “The kingpin strategy is a failed strategy,” she said.

The US Justice Department had no comment on the arrest of 32-year-old Ovidio Guzmán.

López Obrador assumed the presidency in December 2018 after campaigning under the slogan “hugs, not bullets.” He allocated resources to social programs to address what he sees as the root causes of violence, a medium- and long-term approach that has had little effect in a country with more than 35,000 homicides a year.

“One thing that has characterized, in my opinion, Mexico’s security policy in recent years is that it is not very clear. It has been a bit contradictory,” said Ángelica Durán Martínez, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. That ambiguity makes it difficult to determine whether a change has actually occurred, she said.

Guzmán’s arrest benefits the López Obrador executive in several ways. On the one hand, it eases the humiliation of the military after cartel hitmen forced them to release him in 2019. On the other hand, it could calm resentment after severely limiting anti-drug cooperation with Washington two years ago and help diminish the perception that The Mexican president, who has frequently visited Sinaloa and praised its people, has been softer on the region’s dominant cartel than on other gangs.

For four years, López Obrador has disrupted the drug war waged by his predecessors at every opportunity he got. Experts maintain that this respite has allowed the groups to strengthen themselves, both in their organization and in their weapons.

Guzmán had assumed an increasingly important role in his organization after his father was sentenced to life in prison in the United States. Washington accused Ovidio Guzmán and another of his brothers in 2018 for drug trafficking. He allegedly controlled a number of methamphetamine labs and was implicated in the cartel’s strong expansion into the production of fentanyl.

Synthetic drugs have been immune to government eradication efforts, are easier to produce and smuggle, and are far more profitable.

The Sinaloa cartel hardly suffered when El Chapo was extradited to the United States, so the capture of one of the “Chapitos”, as the Guzmán brothers are known, will not shake their operations.

According to Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope, the capture of Ovidio Guzmán was probably due to pressure or information from the US executive and implies a tacit abandonment of López Obrador’s rhetoric on the strategy against the drug lords.

For Hope, the arrest is discouraging not only because it will not cause fundamental changes to the cartel’s burgeoning export of methamphetamine and fentanyl, but because it reveals how little research Mexican authorities had done on Guzmán and his organization since 2019.

“It’s good that they caught Ovidio. Applause. Perfect,” Hope said. “What depresses me is that we have been in this matter for 16 years (the war on drugs) or 40 counting from (the murder of Enrique) Camarena and we still have no capacity to investigate”

Following Guzmán’s capture, Mexican authorities said he was arrested based on a US extradition request, as well as for illegal possession of weapons and attempted murder at the time of the operation. Interior Secretary Adán López Hernández said Friday that Mexico had other ongoing investigations that they could not discuss.

“We continue to bet on the presence of muscle, on military capabilities, and not on research capabilities,” Hope said.

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