We Will Miss El Chapo: He Was Easy to Blame for Our Drug War Failures

El Chapo gave the international drug trade a high-profile recognizable face – and we will miss him now that he is gone. It is always convenient – whether for politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, scriptwriters or the larger public – for a problem to have a familiar face to hate and target. Al Capone was the face of Prohibition-era organized crime, Pablo Escobar the face of Colombia’s cocaine wars and Osama Bin Laden the face of transnational terrorism.

It is far easier to blame and go after a ruthless individual or set of individuals for problems that have deeper, messier, more complex roots. In the case of El Chapo, having him at the top of the “most wanted” list creates flashy headlines, sells newspapers, justifies budgets and provides tough sounding political sound bites; extreme poverty and displacement in Mexico and other Latin American drug exporting countries and woefully inadequate drug treatment and addiction research in the United States and other consumer countries do not.

Having a drug lord like El Chapo to point a finger at for America’s growing heroin problem makes it easier to gloss over the fact that there are actually far more prescription opioid overdoses than heroin overdoses; and even though four out of five heroin users in the US reportedly began by using prescription opioids, El Chapo, not big pharma, grabs our attention.

Having an El Chapo to label Public Enemy No 1, and hunting him down after he brazenly escapes justice, also helps to prop up the impression that this is how one should keep score and measure success in the war on drugs. While also drawing attention to bureaucratic incompetence and corruption in Mexico, all the circus-like focus on El Chapo conveniently distracts from a more fundamental questioning of the very supply-side logic of the drug war itself – a war that has claimed more than 60,000 Mexican lives in less than a decade and devastated entire communities without any significant reduction in drug trafficking across the US-Mexico border.

Removing El Chapo is unlikely to change that. A leaked 2010 US Department of Homeland Security memo acknowledges: “The removal of key personnel does not have a discernible impact on drug flows … While the continued arrest or death of key DTO [Drug Trafficking Organization] leadership may have long-term implications as to the viability of a specific DTO, there is no indication it will impact overall drug flows into the United States.”

And with El Chapo behind bars again, if history is any guide, things may very well get worse before they get better as the trafficking underworld violently adjusts. We would do well to remember that El Chapo successfully rose to the top partly by ruthlessly taking advantage of the market opportunities created when his Colombian and Mexican business rivals were weakened or taken out by law enforcement crackdowns.

Now, even more ruthless and skilled criminal entrepreneurs, both within and outside of El Chapo’s Sinaloa organization, are likely to muscle their way in to fill the power vacuum created by his demise. Consequently, the drug trade may become even more chaotic, fragmented, bloody and difficult to contain, with a less easily identifiable and recognizable leadership to target. So while I’m as happy as anyone to see El Chapo back in a jail cell where he belongs – one that he hopefully won’t be able escape from again – the dark ripple effects are worrisome.

The Darwinian reality is that the war on drugs helped give rise to El Chapo, and now the war on drugs has taken him down because he became too much of an embarrassment for the government. His successors, beneficiaries of the El Chapo takedown, would do well to keep a lower, more faceless profile. Becoming too famous can be bad for business – and business will continue, with or without El Chapo.


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