'El Chapo' Guzman is in prison for the rest of his life, but the drug business he leaves behind is booming

  • Sinaloa cartel chief “El Chapo” Guzman was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years for drug trafficking and other charges.
  • Within hours of his sentencing, Guzman was whisked away to ADX Florence — a mountain lockup so secure it’s earned the nickname ” Alcatraz of the Rockies.”
  • But the cartel he helped build and the industry it dominates are more than able to function in his absence — in fact they already have.
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The infamous Mexican drug lord Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera — aka “El Chapo” — has beensentenced to life plus an additional 30 years fordrug trafficking, conspiracy, money laundering and weapons charges, among other crimes committed over the past quarter-century as head of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, theWestern Hemisphere’s most powerful organized crime syndicate.

Judge Brian Cogan alsoordered Guzmán — who was convicted in US federal court in February after adramatic three-month trial— to forfeit US$12.6 billion in illicit narcotics proceeds.

US officials celebrated El Chapo’s demise as a triumph in thewar on drugs. President Donald Trump has taken an aggressivestance on Mexican drug cartels, vowing at hisJanuary 2017 inauguration to stop “the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives.”

“This sentencing shows the world that no matter how protected or powerful you are, DEA will ensure that you face justice,”said the acting administrator of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Uttam Dhillon, at Guzmán’s sentencing.

Having studied thepolitics and economics of theUS-Mexico drug trade, I see a different lesson in Guzmán’s life story. The US may havelocked up Mexico’s worst “bad hombre,” but the business he ran is far too big to fail.

‘Insatiable demand’

Vice President Mike Pence with bales of seized cocaine during a visit to the US Coast Guard cutter Munro, in Coronado, California, July 11, 2019.Associated Press

Mexicans have greeted Guzmán’s demise with more skepticism.

TheMexican newspaper La Jornada noted that the flow of illicit drugs into the United States has not diminished since El Chapo’s arrest.

Mexican estimates suggest that each month the Sinaloa carteltrades two tons of cocaine and 10,000 tons of marijuana plus heroine, methamphetamine and other drugs. Founded in Sinaloa state in the late 1980s, the cartel nowdistributes drugs in 50 countries, including Argentina, the Philippines and Russia.

But Mexican cartels were born to serve consumers in the United States, the world’sbiggest consumer of illicit drugs.

It’s Americans’ “insatiable demand for illegal drugs,” as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clintonsaid in 2009, that allowed Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel to become the world’s biggest supplier of illicit drugs.

Drug trafficking has a highly lucrative business model. According to data from 2016, thewholesale price for a gram of cocaine is approximately US$2.30 in Colombia and $12.50 in Mexico. The same gram will cost $28 in the US. By the time it gets to Australia, it could fetch as much as $176.50.

Retail prices per gram are even higher: $82 in the US and $400 in Australia.

Drug prices rise significantly during transit as intermediaries demand compensation for therisk they assume in getting the product to consumers. This liability markup is one reason that keeping drugs illegal has made them so expensive on the streets and so profitable for the people who trade in them.

Killing, threats and bribes

Bystanders look at bodies lying on a road in the town of Navolato, in Sinaloa, Mexico, June 29, 2017. Fifty-nine AK type and AR-15 bullet casings were found in the area.(AP Photo/Enric Marti)

Illegality is also the reason that the drug trade is so violent.

Running anillegal operation, kingpins like Guzmán must enforce their own agreements and protect themselves from authorities and competitors. They do so using a combination of killing, threats and bribes.

At least eightarmed groups once worked under Guzman’s command in Mexico,attacking competing cartels and members deemed traitors. Guzmán alsobribed as many officers as necessary to succeed in his business.

Alex Cifuentes, a close associate of Guzmán,testified in the trial that the cartel chief once paid a $100 million bribe to then-Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto — an accusation Peña Nieto’s administrationdismissed as “false, defamatory and absurd.”

Guzmán certainlybribed Mexican prison officials. In 2015, heescaped from jail by riding a motorcycle through a lit, ventilated mile-long tunnel constructed directly underneath his cell.

Walls versus profit

A journalist walks through a tunnel discovered by the Mexican Army, during a presentation to the media in Tijuana, Mexico August 2, 2015.REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

For five decades since President Richard Nixonlaunched the war on drugs, the United States has chose not to focus on the economic forces driving this clandestine industry in favor of punishment, sendingmillions of drug traffickers, corner dealers and drug users to jail.

Even as states try to ease mass incarceration bylegalizing cannabis and decriminalizing minor drug offenses like possession, President Trump has called for escalating the federal government’s drug war.

In 2018, Trump delivered anincendiary speech at the United Nations decrying the “scourge” of drugs, followed with apledge signed by 129 nations to “cut off the supply of illicit drugs by stopping their production…and flow across borders.”

Trump’s main proposals for ending the US-Mexico drug trade are to moreharshly punish drug dealers and to build a border wall, whichwill be monitored by 10,000 additional immigration officers.

Aphysical barrier is unlikely to thwart drug smugglers, particularly the wily Sinaloa cartel, history shows. When confronted with a high-tech border fence in Arizona, constructed long before Trump’s administration, Mexican smugglers use acatapult to flinghundred-pound bales of marijuana over to the American side.

“We’ve got the best fence money can buy,” former DEA chief Michael Browntold New York Times journalist Patrick Radden Keefe in 2017, “and they counter us with a 2,500-year-old technology.”

Then there’s the other ancient technology perfected by Guzmán:the tunnel. In the past quarter-century,officials have discovered about 180 cleverly disguised illicit passages under the US-Mexico border. Many, like the one Guzmán used to escape prison, are equipped with electricity, ventilation and elevators.

Corruption undermines the law outside Mexico, too. Between 2006 and 2016 some 200 employees and contractors of the Department of Homeland Security — the agency charged with defending the US border — have accepted nearly $15 million in bribes,according to The New York Times.

“Almost no evidence about corrupt American officials” was allowed at El Chapo’s trial, the Timesreports.

After El Chapo

A Mexican marine looks at the body of a gunman next to a vehicle after a gun fight in Culiacan, Mexico, February 7, 2017.(AP Photo/Rashide Frias)

El Chapo’s downfall hasn’t reduced the availability, price, use or lethality of currently illegal drugs.

In 2017, the year of Guzmán’sextradition to the US, 70,237 peopledied of drug overdose in the United States. Another29,168 people were murdered in Mexico, where thegovernment’s decade-long cartel war has caused violence to escalate nationwide.

Guzmán’s capture hasn’t even hurt the Sinaloa cartel, which has anew boss who promotes amore horizontal leadership structure and is expanding its operations into other criminal activities like illegal mining and human trafficking.

Drug trafficking, of course, is not just a Mexican business. In June, US authorities in Philadelphiaseized a cargo vessel carrying nearly 20 tons of cocaine. The drug-running ship didn’t belong to the Sinaloa cartel. It was owned by a fund run by banking giant JPMorgan Chase.

This story is an updated version of anarticle originally published on Feb. 17, 2017.

Luis Gómez Romero, Senior Lecturer in Human Rights, Constitutional Law and Legal Theory,University of Wollongong

This article is republished fromThe Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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