It wasn’t just that they got him; it’s also how they got him.
Mexican navy commandos, working in tandem with U.S. law enforcement officials, arrested the world’s most wanted drug lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, in a drab midrise condo in the Pacific resort of Mazatlán early Saturday morning. He was reportedly in bed with a woman and didn’t even have time to reach for his AK-47. The security army he usually traveled with was nowhere in sight; there was no epic last stand, not even a single shot.
Rather than the romanticized, untouchable capo of narco-culture lore, El Chapo, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel whom Forbes has listed on its annual rankings of billionaires, seemed like a middle-aged man tired of running, hiding away in a decidedly unglamorous building favored by middle-class Mexican families and Canadian retirees. Where’s the telenovela or narcocorrido in that? The forces pursuing Guzmán had nearly captured him earlier in the week in his hometown of Culiacán, before he fled into a tunnel, and many of his lieutenants had been rounded up in recent weeks. American law enforcement’s tracking of cellphone conversations among Guzmán’s cronies proved crucial to the operation.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the atmospherics—the anti-climactic, outright boring atmospherics—surrounding Guzmán’s capture. Mexican public opinion has long considered Guzmán (who escaped once before from a maximum-security prison in Mexico, allegedly in a laundry bin) a near-mythical figure capable of outsmarting, outspending, and outgunning the Mexican government. Every aspect of the drug lord’s capture punctures this image and helps to shift perceptions about the cartels’ power relative to that of the Mexican state. Decreasing violence in many of the drug wars’ hot spots and impressive wins by law enforcement against the notoriously violent Zetas’ cartel have also contributed to these shifting perceptions.
For President Enrique Peña Nieto, the capture of Guzmán is a significant victory that puts to rest any lingering questions about whether he shared his predecessor Felipe Calderón’s commitment to take on the cartels. He clearly does, though he has smartly downgraded his personal identification with the fight. Calderón came across as obsessed with his crusade against the cartels and seemed to talk about little else in his six years in office. In contrast, Peña Nieto understood that merely by changing the topic he could alter how people perceive the scope of the problem. Since taking office 14 months ago, Peña Nieto has made his obsession the package of transformative reforms he pushed through Congress—on education, energy, trusts, and so on—and delegated the drug violence (and the messaging around it) to his security team, signaling to the Mexican people that he (and they) had bigger worries. His government’s subsequent triumphs against the various cartels only seem magnified by the fact that they haven’t been his top priority.
No one is pretending that the drug trade will be disrupted overnight because of the Sinaloa Cartel CEO’s capture. Of all the trafficking organizations, Sinaloa’s was the most sophisticated and businesslike, with a global supply chain and a well-oiled distribution network throughout the United States. But for Mexicans, exhausted from eight years of horrific violence triggered by the federal government taking on the cartels and from the cartels fighting against each other for trade routes and market share, disrupting the flow of drugs northward is not the main objective. They simply want an end to the spectacular violence that until recently made cities like Ciudad Juárez and Monterrey and states like Tamaulipas and now Michoacán nearly ungovernable.
Mexican public opinion has little appetite for waging an unconditional war to completely wipe out the drug trade, assuming that were even possible. That is seen as a fool’s errand, or at the very least an errand done for Americans eager to outsource the fight to Mexicans. The move by some U.S. states to decriminalize drug use has further reinforced widespread disgust in Mexico at the idea of Mexican police officers, soldiers, and small-town civic leaders being killed to prevent Americans from lighting up.