Mexico's New Drug War Challenge

A cartel leader’s arrest doesn’t mean narco runners are on the run
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican navy marines at a hangar in Mexico City on Feb. 22 Photograph by Eduardo Verdugo/AP Photo

For Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, the capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, head of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel and arguably the world’s most notorious drug lord, is as momentous as the killing of Osama bin Laden was for President Obama. By nabbing “Shorty,” Peña Nieto has both made his country safer and improved his political standing.

Bin Laden’s death marked not the end of al-Qaeda but its evolution into a more dispersed and no less deadly threat. Guzman’s arrest likewise highlights a shift in Mexico’s criminal landscape from big cartels to smaller and more violent drug-running groups that also practice extortion and kidnapping. The fight against these groups will be arduous and door-to-door. It’s a Mexican fight, which is why it would be a mistake to move Guzman to the U.S., where he faces multiple federal indictments. Denying Mexico the chance to show it can hold such criminals to account could undermine Peña Nieto’s credibility.

Tactics need to change. When the state of Michoacán’s government was overrun by the Knights Templar drug gang and self-styled vigilantes, Peña Nieto’s administration in effect took over the state, deploying the military and billions of dollars in assistance. Peña Nieto cannot afford to do that in every state that faces a severe crime problem.

The solution is to promote the rule of law at the local level. Although Mexico has begun a transition to a justice system based on adversarial public trials with oral arguments (as opposed to a closed-door system based on written arguments), only one-third of the population is covered by the switch, which is supposed to be complete by 2016. Building public trust in the judiciary and law enforcement is a critical challenge. If the U.S. wants to help, it should expand its assistance to Mexico for criminal justice reform, stanch the southbound traffic of guns, and step up its anti-money-laundering efforts. Law enforcers should rightly pause to celebrate Guzman’s arrest. Then they need to redouble their focus as they face a new threat in its wake.


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