Narcos: El Chapo’s Trial and Drug Violence in Latin America

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In the popular Netflix show Narcos: México, drug lord Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, at the moment of his bloody coronation, decides to show mercy to a young trafficker that would later become the leader of the infamous Sinaloa cartel and the most powerful narcotraficante in Mexican modern history, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, or simply ‘El Chapo’. His brutal reign would forever mark the history of international drug trafficking before coming to an end in the most unexpected of places: an American courtroom. After extradition to the US, which was prompted by a third escape from prison in 2015, the kingpin has finally faced the full scrutiny of a jury in a country that used to be his main client and target demographic. He was convicted for drug-trafficking charges on February 12th and may face life in prison. What was most interesting about this extensive 11-week trial, however, was not whether Mr. Guzmán was guilty or innocent (the amount of evidence provided left no doubt), but the tsunami of revelations coming to the public eye. Testimonies, stories and accusations originating from 50 witnesses have helped shed light on a much darker world of bribery, extortion and subversion of public institutions and figures, which further informs the study of drug violence in Latin America.

If the testimonies are to be believed, the cartel seems to have infiltrated every level of the Mexican state like a cancer. Hardly any influential political figure of recent Mexican history have been spared. The most jaw-dropping case is that of  former president Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), who, according to Alex Cifuentes Villa, a Colombian trafficker and former business partner of Mr Guzmán, accepted $100 million in bribes in exchange for allowing the drug lord to come out of hiding in 2012. Another witness admits paying millions in the mid-2000s to two top government officials, Genaro García Luna and Gabriel Regino. The former was the secretary of public security under president Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and a protagonist in a drug war that disproportionally targeted the Sinaloa cartel’s adversaries. The latter was working for the then mayor of Mexico City (and now president) Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The extent of these allegations merely confirms the distaste that citizens of drug-war-ridden countries have always had for their political class and security forces. It also exposes the staggering level of impunity bribed officials have enjoyed under the rule of the narcos.

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As a region, Latin America is home to just 8 percent of the world’s population, but 33 percent of its homicides. Where the world’s average homicide rate (per 100,000) is 7, Latin America’s is more than three times that at 21.5.  It can surely be argued that individuals such as Mr Guzmán and what he represents have been the main agents of this chronic, region-wide problem, particularly when taking into consideration that most homicides are linked to drugs and that drug wars have been extraordinarily violent, claiming the lives of some 100,000 Mexicans, for example. A number which exceeds the number of casualties the US suffered throughout the whole of the Vietnam war. However, to blame the unending violence solely on the drug cartels misses the point. They are, to a large extent, the symptom of the disease, not necessarily its cause. A deeper, more comprehensive analysis should go beyond what is on the surface and take into account the socio-political and economic challenges the region has faced since the middle of the last century.

Latin America’s precocious urbanisation led to an unsustainably rapid expansion of cities with little to no government oversight and investment. The result was unemployment, poverty, lack of infrastructure and social inequality. Latin American cities have thus become a breeding ground for criminal activity. It was in such environment that drug cartels thrived by filling the vacuum left by the state. Two of Colombia’s greatest cartels in the 1980s and 90s were headquartered in two of its biggest cities, Medellín and Cali. Félix Gallardo was only successful because he transferred his organisation from peripheric Sinaloa to Guadalajara, a bigger and more well-connected urban centre. Drug cartels, like any sort of bureaucracy, depend on a variety of resources, including labour, which are harder to find in rural areas. Poor urban neighbourhoods staffed with young, underage men lacking any kind of family structure and government aid become a recruiting ground for drug dealers. This is the case of many of the favelas in Rio, which have morphed into trafficking hubs as well as parallel states ruled by the law of the jungle. The large number of underage boys converting to crime has even prompted a fierce debate in Brazilian society on whether to lower the minimum age to be sent to conventional prison from 18 to 16. The best way forward, however, appears to be minimising the underlying incentives to join drug cartels by increasing the presence of the state (from education to policing) in areas where violence is most concentrated. It is no coincidence that El Chapo’s home-region and powerbase, Sinaloa, is also one of the most anarchic in Mexico.

A final aspect worth noticing, and which became even more clear with the trial, is the transnational nature of big drug enterprises. Mr. Guzmán’s empire stretched far beyond Sinaloa and the US border, reaching as far as Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Belize, Honduras, Canada, Thailand and China. His vast financial capital, believed to have reached around $14 billion, benefited hugely from financial globalisation, shell companies and tax havens. Complex global supply chains and logistical apparatus made the Sinaloa cartel an evil form of multinational corporation equipped with its own private army and internal power struggles. Therefore, the cliché ‘global problems require global solutions’ seems to apply perfectly here. International cooperation in the form of extraditions, intelligence sharing and joint operations, need to be made a priority, perhaps even triggering the long-due process of regional integration in Latin America.

Mr. Guzmán may have been brought down but someone else will surely take his place. This hive, unfortunately, has many queens. In the meantime, Latin America will continue to suffer from urban violence and social instability. Its vibrant civil societies need to become more vigilant and make sure that those in power do not act as they do in Narcos: México.