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Arrest of cartel leader Guzman, ‘face of Mexican impunity,’ sends message

February 24, 2014 at 6:22 PM EST
Under Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel rose to dominate or destroy rivals on the U.S.-Mexican border. Jeffrey Brown looks at how the arrest affects the drug trade with former Mexican intelligence official Alejandro Hope and Sam Quinones of the Los Angeles Times.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what does this mean for the drug trade?

We turn to Alejandro Hope, formerly with Mexico’s National Intelligence Agency and now a private security analyst. He joins us from Mexico City. And Sam Quinones, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times and author of several books on Mexico.

Alejandro Hope, was this a surprise that he was captured without a shot being fired, and how were Mexican and U.S. forces able to do that? What do we know?

ALEJANDRO HOPE, Former Mexican Intelligence Official: Well, I mean, this is the end result of a long process of accumulation of intelligence about Guzman and about the environment where he worked and where he lived.

This is not the first major arrest that happens without a shot being fired. Several of those happened under the administration and also under the administration of President Calderon. It was surprising that probably that El Chapo Guzman didn’t put up much more of a fight, but it does prove that there are far more capacities now than when this whole process started seven, eight years ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sam Quinones, tell us a little bit more about Guzman himself, his history, his reputation, his importance.

SAM QUINONES, The Los Angeles Times: I think his story and the story of the Sinaloans in drug trafficking is one of the most fascinating in all of the history of organized crime.

These are guys who started out in the country of Badiraguato, which is a small hillside mountain county in the state of Sinaloa. From there, they used their machismo, violence, as well as political connections during the reign of the PRI, which ran the country for about 70 years, to expand their power.

And in time, Sinaloans grew to control 1,500 miles roughly of the 1,900-mile border between the United States and Mexico. So they controlled areas as far away as Juarez and Tijuana and the Arizona border. Chapo Guzman grew up in this poor community.

He became through ruthless violence and I think also a fair amount of expertise kind of that he developed in logistics, in organizational capacity, began to expand this cartel until he kind of rubbed — he’s kind of basically rubbed out the other two. The Juarez cartel is not what it once was. The Tijuana cartel especially has disintegrated.

And so he’s now kind of left to be the lone guy on much of the border along Mexico. That’s why it was such a big coup. He started as a small nobody, a hillbilly basically. All these guys started as hillbillies, most of them anyway, and now he’s the most wanted guy in the United States as well as in Mexico.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, let me ask Alejandro Hope, how important is this there in Mexico?  And in this long fight that Mexico’s had against the cartels, where does this fit in and what does it tell us about where that fight is right now?

ALEJANDRO HOPE: Well, I think this is very important both I would say ethically, strategically and politically.

Ethically, because Guzman was, El Chapo Guzman was face of Mexican impunity. He had mocked Mexican law enforcement agencies for 13 years. He had successfully waged war in two major cities. He brought bloodshed to most of the border mostly unimpeded.

It’s an important message that this guy can be brought, was brought to justice. Secondly, strategically, because this is pushing, this accelerated the — an ongoing concession from large-scale drug trafficking organization to smaller gangs, more local in scope, but more diverse fighting activities, i.e., more involved in things like extortion, kidnapping, theft.

So this is in some ways, this is the end of an era. Chapo Guzman is one of a dying breed of Mexican gangsters as mostly smugglers. And this certainly changes the chessboard of the Mexican criminal underworld. And politically it’s important because President Pena Nieto can send two important messages.

One is that it’s effective in the fight against these large-scale mafias and, secondly, they can put to rest the rumors that had been going on for quite some time that the new administration would try to accommodate the cartels and would try to exchange peace for tolerance. I think that that should put that to rest.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Sam Quinones, of course the big question is what does his capture mean for the flow of drugs in the United States and elsewhere? We heard that U.S. officials want to extradite Guzman himself. But what does his capture mean? Might it impede the flow? Might it have any impact at all?

SAM QUINONES: I suspect it will probably have some significance impact for a while.

You know, I was asked earlier, is this an important thing and are there people to replace him? Yes, yes to both questions. There are people to replace him and this is still a very, very important coup. I agree with Alejandro Hope in all of what he just said.

I would say, though, that just because he might easily be replaced does not mean that people should not — that these guys should not be brought to justice. There is the idea that this guy was kind of the poster child for Mexican impunity. But also in these cartels, very often the guys who run these cartels, these are meritocracies in a certain sense.

They are guys who combine certain capacities, first of all, of course, wanton murder, the ability to kill at the drop of a hat. That’s number one. But also they involved, they embody kind of great organizational capacity and great logistical capacity. This guy was moving tons of drugs across a well-armed border, using criminals and other folks, ragtag army kind of folks.

That is not easy to do. And so if he’s taken down, I think we can suspect that there probably are not a whole lot of other people there who have the same capacity or charisma that he does. And so that may lead to fracturing. I very much agree with Alejandro Hope that think what’s happening in the cartels nowadays is that they are really fracturing. There were a few large ones. Now they are just totally fracturing and this is going to be one more step towards that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Sam Quinones, just in a word, if you could in our last 30, seconds do you expect him to be extradited to the U.S. or would he be tried in Mexico?

SAM QUINONES: No, we have got — our federal prison system is becoming the depository for numerous legendary Mexican narcos. I suspect he will be right there pretty soon.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Sam Quinones, Alejandro Hope, thank you both very much.

SAM QUINONES: Thank you.

ALEJANDRO HOPE: Thank you very much.