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With El Chapo gone, can Mexico dismantle the drug trade? Unlikely

Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by army soldiers to a waiting helicopter in Mexico City after his arrest. Jan. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

For more than two decades, drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was tracked by Mexican authorities. Twice, he was locked up in maximum security prisons, and twice, he miraculously escaped. The recent manhunt and El Chapo’s dramatic recapture placed Mexico in the spotlight, and the world waits to see what’s next for the drug lord, the drug war and Mexico.

The drug kingpin’s most-recent capture was made possible in part by his Rolling Stone interview with actor Sean Penn. The capture was celebrated as a victory – particularly for President Enrique Peña Nieto, after Guzmán slipped through Mexico’s prison system yet again. People believe that if El Chapo is gone, perhaps Mexico could finally begin to dismantle the drug trade. And if Mexico could fix its drug problem, maybe it could fix its poverty problem, too.

Unfortunately, that is as likely as a third El Chapo escape (extradition to the U.S., with its stronger prisons, makes that very unlikely).

Guzmán’s confinement is more symbolic than anything. Locking him behind bars didn’t stop the drug trade in 2014; his recent arrest will not be much different, and it certainly won’t address the poverty problem.

El Chapo’s drug cartel, Sinaloa, will certainly not be hindered by his arrest. Sinaloa is composed of a vast network of growers and retail sellers who will continue their business as usual. The horizontal structure of the cartel, according to the Huffington Post, also allows them to function and maintain stable networks in many different countries. Moreover, these criminals evade capture with the active complicity of the police, the military, politicians, big business and the banking sector, according to The Conversation.

If anything, El Chapo’s capture could make some matters worse. Disrupting the operations of one cartel creates an opportunity for another to step in. Now, even more ruthless and skilled criminals are likely to fill El Chapo’s position of power, according to The Guardian,  and the drug trade may consequently become “even more chaotic, fragmented, bloody and difficult to contain, with a less easily identifiable and recognizable leadership to target.”

Instead of focusing our media attention and hatred on the ‘head honcho’ of the Mexican drug trade, Mexico needs to dismantle the system from the bottom up, by addressing the problems that help maintain the system of drug trafficking in the first place. Some say the solution is legalization: If we truly want to bring down the drug trade, we need to legalize the use, sale and production of marijuana. Others say the cartels can be brought down by attacking their financial structure, arguing they would be nothing without the cooperation of international banks.

But the big, recurring problem fueling Mexico’s drug cartels is the crippling rate of poverty. In his interview with Penn, Guzmán himself said poverty drove him to grow and sell marijuana plants.

“Where I grew up there was no other way and there still isn’t a way to survive, no way to work in our economy to be able to make a living,” Guzmán said.

And he’s right; today, more than 46 percent of Mexicans live in poverty – a number that is still rising – and in some urban regions, like Mexico City, the rate of poverty has reached 76 percent. Joaquín Guzmán’s home state, Sinaloa, was among eight Mexican states that experienced significant or slight increases in both poverty and extreme poverty between 2012 and 2014, according to a study by Conval.

Of course, poverty alone does not necessarily lead to drug trafficking. But El Chapo’s words do reflect one of the major problems feeding the drug war. Until Mexico sees an increase in jobs, drug cartels can expect a consistent supply of goods and labor. Shannon O’Neil, author of Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States and the Road Ahead, framed the situation nicely:

“Whether it’s drug trafficking or other illegal activities, a lack of viable legal economic opportunities or avenues for advancement does lead people to desperation,” O’Neil told The WorldPost. “And especially in that area of Sinaloa – why would you farm corn if you could farm marijuana or poppies?”



About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at