How to Reach New Criminal-Political Equilibrium in Mexico’s Post-‘Chapo’ Vacuum

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+

With Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman now back in a cage many analysts and ordinary Mexicans alike fret about the expected knock-on effects. What those effects are, and how bloody they might be, will depend on President Enrique Peña Nieto’s next moves in dealing with both the power vacuum Guzman leaves and the political and financial networks that supported his grip.

As Guillermo Valdez, former head of Mexico’s premiere spy agency, explained at a Washington DC conference in the week following his capture, much of the violence this past decade can be explained by the efforts of Guzman and his cartel allies to rebuild the dominion Sinaloans had held over Mexico’s drug trade for a century.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of El Chapo

Valdez and other analysts point out that the Sinaloa-controlled trade flourished under the patronage of Mexican officials and security forces, both of which took an active role in awarding “plazas,” or local franchises, to particular traffickers. That system broke down following the 1985 killing of DEA Agent Enrique Camarena and the subsequent arrest of Sinaloa kingpin Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (and associates).

The various Sinaloa factions geographically divvied up the trade — the Arellano Felixes to Tijuana, the Carrillo Fuentes’ to Juarez, the Beltran Leyvas to Acapulco and Mexico City. Only Mexico’s northeast corner, birthplace of the Gulf Cartel, was outside of the Sinaloan’s orbit.

Guzman and his Sinaloan partners moved to reclaim control amid a power vacuum left by the end of seven decades of centralized one-party rule under President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Political power that had rested with the presidency since the turn of the century shifted to state governors, who proved incapable of keeping gangsters in line. The once widely feared and deeply corrupt federal police and intelligence agencies were de-fanged in the interest of democratic reform.

That was great news for Guzman and other narco-bosses. After decades of serving as vassals of the politicians and police, they became warlords in their own right, dictating orders rather than taking them.

Guzman’s murderous minions bear a large measure of blame for the slaughter that has beset Mexico over the past decade as they tried to re-assert the Sinaloa Cartel’s dominance after gaining this power.

Through years of expanding its territory, Guzman’s organization made more than a few enemies and produced a well-oiled business run by capable lieutenants. Both Chapo’s rivals and his own underlings could slice away pieces of his empire for themselves, with a lot of shooting, chopping and dicing involved.

“An escalation of violence because of this capture is a possibility,” analyst Raul Benitez says. “It’s worth remembering, out there are a great number of assassin cells running loose, high caliber weapons and, above all, huge sums of money and drugs in play.”

So now that the narco-emperor has fallen will those he vanquished have their vengeance?

Will what’s left of the Carrillo Fuentes organization try to take back control of Ciudad Juarez? Will Guzman’s enemies in Tijuana and the rest of Baja California do the same? Will the Zetas, however weakened by the loss of their own chieftains, move against Guzman’s gunmen in Durango, Zacatecas or Sinaloa itself?

That will depend in large part on Peña Nieto’s reaction. The president announced this week that the government will go after the political and economic network that protected Guzman these past 13 years, since his 2001 escape from prison.

It’s a good bet that a politician or two and a few business executives will take a fall. That’s the way it works here. But dismantling all the Sinaloa Cartel’s political protection likely won’t happen, and for the sake of stability perhaps it shouldn’t.

Calderon wagered his presidency on breaking the gangs and bringing the rule of law to Mexico. He came up way short and Peña Nieto won’t make that same mistake. If near-term pacification is the president’s goal, he’ll have to look at other options.

Before last Saturday’s arrest, many observers argued that both Peña Nieto and his predecessor Felipe Calderon had favored Guzman in order to maintain a “Pax Mafiosa” that would impose peace among gangland rivals where the government could not.

If true, the favoritism toward Guzman was an admission of just how weak the government’s hold had gotten over Mexico’s underworld. The government’s hand won’t strengthen anytime soon.

This leaves Peña Nieto with essentially two options. He “partners” with a dominant gangland power to keep order. This is not too different from what he has already employed (and what the US does on its home turf): send an explicit and not so explicit message that violence is not tolerated. And a strong, underworld partner can assist in keeping this “peace.”

The most obvious choice of who to “partner” with is what is left of the Sinaloa Cartel. Brutal as Sinaloa’s killers can be, they’ve mostly kept to drug trafficking, foregoing the extortion, kidnapping and assaults by which even more vicious gangs like the Zetas and Knights Templar sustain themselves. That “international” business plan fits perfectly with Peña Nieto’s aim to diminish crimes that most affect the general population.

SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profiles

However, it may not be so easy. The Sinaloa Cartel, post-Chapo, could disintegrate further, its factions joining the more than 80 smaller gangs that have replaced the five cartels that existed 15 years ago.

The second option is more institutional, although requires a big political tradeoff. Rather than waiting for aspiring Guzmans to try and violently cobble together new cartels that could overwhelm local and state governments, Peña Nieto might attempt to keep them divided and weak.

In the absence of functioning justice — police who police, prosecutors who prosecute — he’ll need powerful political allies in place at the state and local levels, corruption be damned.

Mexico’s narcotics trade will continue as long as there are markets for it. The only question will be who calls the industry’s shots and how much bloodshed will be required to do so.

A return to the deeply corrosive franchise system of decades past — in which officials and politicians regain control — might not just be Peña Nieto’s preferred option, it might be his only one. 

SHARETweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+