Will Nabbing of 'El Chapo' Actually Help Mexico Win the War on Drugs?

El Chapo
Recaptured drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera is escorted by soldiers at the hangar belonging to the office of Mexico City’s attorney general on January 8. Henry Romero/Reuters

It was a riveting end to a six-month manhunt. On January 8, Mexican Marines stormed a house in the coastal city of Los Mochis and apprehended Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, a notorious drug kingpin who twice escaped from prison. Not long after recapturing Guzmán, Mexican authorities paraded the mustachioed drug lord before a throng of news cameras in hopes of showing a cynical populace that the government was still in control.

All the backslapping over Guzmán, however, belies a long-running debate among policy experts: Does taking out a kingpin really matter in the war on drugs? The answer is yes, but not in the short run. Capturing Guzmán—and keeping him behind bars, be it in Mexico or the United States—won't do much to diminish the hefty profits of the Sinaloa cartel, analysts say. But the drug lord's arrest—assuming he doesn't escape again—could help transform parts of Mexico from a country overrun by cartels into a bona fide democracy with strong institutions. In the long run, that might make a difference, not in ending the war on drugs but in diminishing the havoc it wreaks.

It's tempting to believe in a "head-of-the-snake" approach to fighting crime, especially after drug lords achieve celebrity status. But that strategy alone hasn't worked, analysts say. As long as there's a demand for illicit narcotics north of the border, the cartels will be best-positioned to supply it.

"I don't think [capturing kingpins] ever made a huge difference," says Jeffrey Miron, an economist at Harvard and the author of Drug War Crimes: The Consequences of Prohibition. "If anything, it's caused more violence because people below the kingpin then fight over who gets to be the new kingpin."

A study released last year by the Cato Institute quantifies that effect. Texas A&M researchers Jason Lindo and María Padilla-Romo found that nabbing a cartel leader tends to increase the homicide rate in a municipality by 80 percent, an effect that lasts for at least a year. Neighboring municipalities see more violence too: The researchers saw a 30 percent rise in killings in the six months after authorities captured a kingpin.

Drug war opponents have long argued that the real way to fight the cartels is by destroying a major source of their income—by legalizing marijuana, for example. Since 2012, four U.S. states and the District of Columbia have done just that, and analysts predict the cartels will lose about a third of their pot revenues in those states.

"Marijuana is still a big part of the bread and butter of cartels," says Daniel Robelo, a research coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York nonprofit that's calling for an end to the drug war. "We're getting increasing news reports from Mexico that [marijuana] is no longer as profitable for them [in those states], but it's still the first or second-leading source of drug revenue."

The problem: Cartels are diversified. They traffic in not only weed but also cocaine, heroin and anything else Americans want to get high on. "There's only one thing that would really hurt the cartels," Miron says, "and that's to legalize everything they're producing." End the war on drugs, in other words, which is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Yet the money and resources spent hunting down Guzmán may not be a waste. Padilla-Romo says her study demonstrated the short-term impact of a top leader's takedown, not the long-term effects. "It's still possible," she says, "that eliminating kingpins could reduce violence in the long run."

Busting top cartel leaders can be effective, analysts say, if it's part of a broader strategy to create a society based on law and order. Mexico has 122 million people and a gross domestic product of $1.2 trillion. Drug cartels aren't powerful enough to displace the government, says Jonathan Caulkins, a professor of operations research and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

But the cartels are so entrenched that many business owners fear resisting them and don't believe the corrupt judicial system can protect them. The country, Caulkins says, needs to do more to strengthen the very institutions that Guzmán and other kingpins have worked so hard to corrupt: paying police officers more, making them less susceptible to bribery and implementing a witness protection program that actually keeps people safe.

"Mexico," says Caulkins, "[has] to show that even the most powerful crime bosses are not immune and will not be in power forever."

For proof, look both north and south of Mexico's border. The U.S. is still home to thousands of drug dealers raking in millions of dollars in distribution, but they don't threaten any government body, Caulkins says, because no single entity is powerful enough to do so. In Colombia, where Pablo Escobar's Medellín cartel once assassinated presidential candidates and blew up buildings to avoid prosecution, the narcos still exist. But thanks to American and Colombian anti-drug efforts and institution building, they no longer have the same level of power and influence.

"If you move from a smallish number of drug-trafficking organizations," Caulkins says, "none of them will rival the state and local governments...[for] power. It's entirely possible for a country to have large amounts of drug trafficking but no organization powerful enough to threaten its institutions."

Perhaps, but that possibility is years if not decades away. "It's definitely good that a mass murderer is off the streets," Robelo says. "But there are people in Mexico who believe this is all to distract from the devaluation of the peso. Some say it's not even El Chapo. Others believe he never really escaped. Very few Mexicans believe this is something to be celebrating."

Until the public sees real evidence that drug cartels like Guzmán's are truly hurting, all that backslapping by Mexican authorities is likely to be short-lived.