The high profile and dramatic capture of “El Chapo” marks a significant victory for Peña Nieto’s administration’s strategy on tackling drug trafficking organisations. However, it could also herald a shift in Mexico’s criminal landscape and prompt a series of swift reprisals.
On February 22, 2014 at 6:40am Mexican authorities arrested Joaquin Guzmán at a hotel in a beach resort area in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, following a joint operation between the Mexican Navy, DEA, and the U.S. Marshals Service.
Guzmán’s detention is the culmination of a series of raids in recent months, targeting the Sinaloa Federation’s leadership, which have resulted in a number of arrests and deaths. Sinaloa, at the time of Guzmán’s arrest is arguably Mexico’s most powerful and influential drug trafficking organisation, operating in an increasingly chaotic and shifting criminal economy. However, the capture of the Sinaloa leader, like the detention of Los Zetas’, Trevino Morales in 2013, does not herald the end of the organisation. The Sinaloa Federation’s scale, structure and sophistication means it has been able to operate successfully without Guzmán in the past.
Mexico’s criminal landscape
A gradual but noteworthy shift in Mexico’s criminal landscape has become clear. Increased competition, bitter rivalries, violence and a series of military operations has led to the formation of a greater number of smaller-scale cartels and criminal organisations. Analysts estimate that there are some 80 drug trafficking organisations currently operating in Mexico alongside the better known larger cartels. The capacity of these smaller groups to challenge state or government authority may be lower but these divisions could also have negative implications for the security environment at a local level.
Peña Nieto’s holistic and much analysed strategy to focus on lowering levels of violence has been effective to a certain extent. From one perspective, the authorities have succeeded in better coordinating the country’s intelligence and operative branches, facilitating arrests and reducing conflict. However, it is debateable whether levels of violence have in fact decreased and official government figures illustrate that levels of kidnap and extortion have risen significantly in the past 12 months.
The arrest itself is likely to prompt a series of retaliatory attacks and possible reprisals from the Sinaloa Federation that target the police and security services. Attacks could take the form of high-profile and public abductions, attacks and gun-fights.
Additionally, in the ensuing succession-related violence, rival groups and cartels are likely to attempt to encroach on Sinaloa’s territory provoking further conflict. It is also likely that the military will attempt to pre-empt and contain potential violent clashes in key towns and cities.
Whilst “El Chapo’s” capture may be a substantial victory for the Mexican government, the short and medium term implications will make the operating environment more challenging, particularly in the north-western and pacific states.
Picture source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Department of Homeland Security)