Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mexico's image problem

Foreign Policy magazine has just published my piece on Mexico's image issues; check it out. (Link is in the title of the post.)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How powerful is Chapo?

Interpol's chief representative in Mexico says that Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman Loera is losing clout, and no longer has such great control over drug trafficking out of Mexico. Patrick Corcoran has a good short summary at InSight (link in title of post.)

Wait, but wasn't Chapo the most powerful drug trafficker in the world just a few weeks ago, according to one DEA official? (I allude to it too in the title of my book, "The Last Narco, inside the hunt for the world's most wanted drug lord")

Here's the thing about the drug trade: it evolves rapidly. Chapo doesn't man the day-to-day operations of the Sinaloa cartel anymore (and actually, rarely did in the past, operating more like a hands-off CEO), but every time a new group springs up that might threaten his hegemony, he makes a move – an alliance or war. When La Familia sprang up in the early part of last decade, for instance, he let them operate and made deals with them so that their meth could be moved across the US border (being based in Michoacan, La Familia had a coastline but no direct overland route to the US). When he saw an opportunity in Nuevo Laredo – a weakened Gulf cartel – Chapo sent his people there to try and take that plaza in 2003. (They failed.) When La Familia started becoming more influential and powerful in 2006-2007, Chapo made a more formal alliance with them, effectively incorporating the smaller group into his organization.
When the violence produced by Los Zetas and other thugs in Tamaulipas got out of hand, Chapo and the Gulf cartel struck an alliance to crack down on them, with the greater good (well, from their perspective, which is drug trafficking) in mind.

With all these alliances, Chapo's control has expanded, but these are not cut-and-dry deals – the alliances shift, and he only purportedly steps in when absolutely necessary. So one could interpret the growing activity of other gangs as a sign that Chapo does not have as much control, but the reality is that in many cases, they operate with his blessing – so he's basically still in charge. However, there are clear signs – massacres and shootouts in Durango, for instance – that suggest he is not in control of these other gangs. Conflicts in Sinaloa, too, suggest he doesn't even have complete control of operations in his home state.

Chapo's operations are also certainly growing worldwide – Sinaloan drug traffickers have been arrested in a number of countries, ranging from Egypt to Argentina to Malaysia in recent years. Whether they are actual Sinaloa cartel operatives – ie, in the employ of Chapo himself – or lowly drug traffickers who happen to come from Sinaloa and are trying to make some money, is unclear. Some have been confirmed as actual operatives and conejos (scouts), others have not. Properties belonging to Chapo and his Sinaloa cartel cronies have also been seized in Europe and parts of South America, which points to an obvious expansion of presence, even if cartel operatives in this case are lawyers and money launderers.

As we've seen Chapo's operations grow globally, we've also seen the decline of his hegemony at home. This is unsurprising, in my opinion, because as he extends his empire, he's going to risk losing control of his base operations. If you're fighting a war on various fronts, expanding your business by acquiring new groups and at the same time facing pressure from the authorities (yes, contrary to popular belief, the Sinaloa cartel has been hit very hard by the Mexican authorities, lots of arrests and seizures, etc), you leave yourself vulnerable at home. You are putting resources and effort into foreign operations, while your base is being attacked. Recent conflicts in Sinaloa indicate that there is very little top-down control being implemented by Chapo and El Mayo in the region – their focus is obviously elsewhere.

The real question is what this will mean for the drug war going forward: will Chapo lose control altogether? He never has before, and has been in precarious situations in the past. But he's 54 years old now, and has been on the run for 11 years. And the situation is quite different today: the Zetas and La Familia are not tight-knit, organized units with which alliances can be easily struck. Both organizations are heavily divided, fractured even, and not easily controlled. They seem content to massacre migrants and shoot up innocents, no matter how bad it might be for business. And no one seems to be sending them a message to quiet down anymore, which Chapo and El Mayo used to do in Sinaloa.

I do envision Chapo losing control. I don't see the possibility of a pact, nor do I see him taking control back once he's lost it. I see the increased efforts to launder money and buy property outside of Mexico as a means of getting out while he still can. And the inability (or reluctance) to stem violence in Sinaloa and Durango on the part of Chapo and his crew appears to be a further sign of his diminishing power. That said, I think the Sinaloa cartel will continue to grow globally, and probably domestically, as a loose-knit federation (which is always how it operated in Sinaloa and its environs).

As for the violence, it's tragic, but I think Police Chief Genaro Garcia Luna is right in his assessment – it's not going to ease up for another 7 years or so. More groups operating independently will inevitably mean more disputes being settled through violence rather than dialogue (say what you will about the old guard, but they did have meetings and strike alliances that way); I also think the degree of brutality will increase, although that is indeed hard to imagine, because these groups will have to outdo each other to gain respect.

Oh, and for what it's worth, I still think Chapo will be killed before the 2012 elections. Again, it's just a hunch, I don't have any intel that would back this up.