The Peña Nieto administration’s frontal assault on the Zetas and its dogged pursuit of Guzmán should be seen as an effort to reassert the supremacy of state power. The goal is less to drive all drug traders out of business than to dissuade these organizations from terrorizing the population with violent crime. Peña Nieto can’t come out and say this too explicitly, but given the choice of ending the drug trade or ending violence, he’d probably settle for the latter. It’s not a matter of making deals with bad guys, as conspiracy-mongers love to suggest, but of setting priorities.
Conventional wisdom suggests that violence and mayhem increase when the established head Mafioso is taken out, as underlings retaliate and engage in bloody turf battles. It’s not clear, though, whether this will happen in Sinaloa. Mexico’s cartels have already had brutal turf battles over the past decade, and if Guzmán’s successors are as rational as reports suggest, they would be well-advised not to ratchet up the violence and to hope that the Mexican state’s fury will be focused on continuing the fight against the Zetas and bringing the central state of Michoacán (currently besieged by another cartel) under control.
The acknowledged role of the U.S. government in the capture of Guzmán is also significant and should put to rest concerns that the Peña Nieto administration was radically rolling back the level of cooperation with American agencies that Calderón’s team had embraced. Upon taking office, Peña Nieto’s team was reportedly surprised by how embedded American officials were across a number of Mexican agencies, and they moved to consolidate and coordinate the bilateral exchanges in one office. Washington at first worried that this reflected a lessened appetite to fight the cartels, but even before the success of this operation, U.S. officials had been assuaged that the changes reflected an internal reorganization of Mexico’s security apparatus and were not driven by a desire to end American involvement in the effort.
The Mexican government has proven that it is far from powerless in the face of these world-class mafias, that it can hunt down and overpower their chiefs. The greater challenge for Peña Nieto now is proving to the Mexican people, and to his northern neighbor, that Mexico’s judicial system is capable of trying and incarcerating for good (in such a manner that he can no longer pull strings behind the scenes) someone as powerful as Guzmán. It is on these fronts where Mexico has yet to demonstrate that it is a democracy with a resilient and entrenched rule of law.
Prosecutors across the United States are lining up to demand that Guzmán be extradited to face trial in their jurisdictions, and plenty of people on both sides of the border find this a desirable prospect—the best guarantee that Guzmán is locked away for good.
But that is not the best long-term solution for either nation. The impulse to extradite drug kingpins to the United States (in cases where the bulk of their crimes took place in Mexico) is akin to the impulse in this country to send terrorist suspects off to Guantánamo. It’s essentially a surrender, a recognition that the system can’t handle such cases.
In Mexico’s case, sadly, that’s often been true. But that has to change for the country’s successes against the cartels to have lasting meaning. Mexico needs to dispense justice on behalf of Mexicans. The likes of “El Chapo” Guzmán can’t only appear to be defeated and diminished on the day of their apprehension but forever afterwards as well.