It was more of a display of muscle — helicopter gunships, hundreds of troops and armored vehicles — at the start of a possible extradition process than a major step in a Mexican effort to dismantle one of the country’s most powerful criminal organizations. Perhaps coincidentally, it came just days before US President Joe Biden made the first visit by a US leader in nearly a decade.
López Obrador has made it clear throughout the first four years of his six-year term that pursuing drug capos is not his priority. When the military cornered the younger Guzmán in Culiacan in 2019, the president ordered him released to prevent any loss of life after gunmen began shelling the town.
The only other major arrest under his administration was the grab of an elderly Rafael Caro Quintero last July — just days after López Obrador met Biden at the White House. At the time, Caro Quintero held more symbolic significance for ordering the murder of a DEA agent decades ago than real weight in today’s drug world.
“Mexico wants to do at least the bare minimum on counter-narcotics,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former chief of international operations, who spent 13 years of his career in Mexico. “I don’t think this is a sign that there will be closer cooperation, bilateral cooperation, if you will, between the United States and Mexico.”
While catching a criminal is a victory for justice and the rule of law, Vigil said, the impact on what he sees as a “permanent campaign against drugs” is nil. “What we really need to do here in the United States is we need to do a better job of reducing demand.”
That was a major talking point when the US and Mexican governments announced a new Bicentennial Framework for Safety, Public Health and Safe Communities in late 2021, replacing the aging Merida initiative.
The pact was to provide a more holistic approach to the scourge of drugs and the deaths they cause on both sides of the border. But to underline the frequent disconnection between diplomatic speech and reality, just two months later the US government announced a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of one of El Chapo’s four sons, including Ovidio, thereby indicated that the US pivot’s strategy was alive and well. .
“The Bicentennial Agreement was a change on paper in addressing drug trafficking and violence with a more significant focus on what were supposedly public health programs — (but) without any budget,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an associate professor at George Mason University. . In reality, “Mexico bends to the interests of the United States.”
For decades, the US has busted drug lords from Mexico, Colombia and in between, but drugs are as available and deadlier than ever in the United States, she said. “The kingpin strategy is a failed strategy.”
The US Department of Justice declined to comment on Ovidio Guzmán’s arrest.
López Obrador took office in December 2018 after campaigning under the motto “hugs, not bullets”. He shifted resources to social programs to address what he sees as the root causes of violence, a medium-to-long-term approach that has yielded little for a country that experiences more than 35,000 homicides a year.
“What I think has characterized Mexico’s security policy in recent years is that it is not very clear. It was a bit contradictory,” said Ángelica Durán-Martínez, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. That ambiguity makes it difficult to determine whether a change has really occurred, she said.
López Obrador’s government benefits from Guzmán’s detention in several ways. The arrest eases the humiliation of the armed forces after he was forced to release him by cartel gunmen in 2019. And it may help lessen the perception that López Obrador — who has often visited Sinaloa and praised its people — has made things easier with the Sinaloa Cartel than with other gangs.
For four years, López Obrador has continued at every opportunity to tear apart his predecessors’ persecution of the drug war. Experts say the delay allowed the cartels to become stronger, both in terms of organization and weaponry.
Guzmán played a growing role at the time after his father was sentenced to life in prison in the US. The younger Guzmán was indicted in Washington in 2018 on drug trafficking charges along with another brother. the Sinaloa Cartel expanded greatly into fentanyl production.
Synthetic drugs are impervious to government eradication efforts, are easier to produce and smuggle, and are much more profitable.
The Sinaloa Cartel barely missed a beat when Guzmán’s father was sent to the US, so the arrest of one of the so-called “Chapitos,” as the brothers are called, will never shake the operation.
Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope said Ovidio Guzman’s detention was likely the result of pressure or information from the US government, marking the tacit abandonment of López Obrador’s rhetoric about abandoning the kingpin strategy.
For Hope, the detention is depressing not only because it won’t fundamentally change the Sinaloa cartel’s thriving export trade in meth and fentanyl, but also because it reveals how little investigation Mexican authorities have done into Guzmán and the cartel since 2019.
“How wonderful that they got Ovidio, applause, perfect,” Hope said. “What depresses me is that we’ve been on this (drug war) for 16 years, or 40 years from the (murder of DEA Agent Enrique) Camarena, and we still don’t have the ability to investigate it.”
Following Guzmán’s arrest, Mexican officials said he was arrested on an existing US extradition request, as well as illegal possession of weapons and attempted murder at the time they found him. Interior Minister Adán López Hernández said on Friday that other Mexican investigations were underway that they could not talk about.
“We continue to bet on the muscle, the military capability, not the ability to investigate,” Hope said.