Would It Be Safer to Set El Chapo Free? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Would It Be Safer to Set El Chapo Free?

Would It Be Safer to Set El Chapo Free?

By Deborah Bonello


Because if you think El Chapo is bad, you should get acquainted with Mexico’s contemporary crime bosses.

By Deborah Bonello

As Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán awaits sentencing in New York, having been found guilty of running a drug-trafficking enterprise, among other offenses, prosecutors, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and other branches of law enforcement are waiting to give themselves a big fat pat on the back. After all, they took down the most infamous drug lord, described by prosecutors as “a ruthless and bloodthirsty leader of the Sinaloa cartel.”

There’s little doubt that Guzmán is going away for life, but his appetite for destruction now looks rather tame compared to today’s crime wars in Mexico. Although he ran a billion-dollar criminal enterprise and most likely ordered or committed some, if not all, of the 26 homicides on his charge sheet, Guzmán seems like an old-school gentleman next to the younger, more contemporary bosses marking out criminal territory and market share on both sides of the southern U.S. border.

While U.S. authorities insist he is the worst of the worst, I suggest they give El Chapo a slap on the wrist and think about letting him out for good behavior. With authorities keeping a close eye, whatever a free Guzmán gets up to will be less dangerous than what we’re seeing drug lords perpetrate today — and his calmer influence might help rein in cartel violence. Maybe the U.S. government could even get Guzmán to embed himself back into the criminal world and help American authorities.

The possibility of El Chapo being released early from prison is less probable than the earth exploding tomorrow.

Mike Vigil, former DEA chief of international operations

After all, authorities on both sides of the border have much bigger problems on their hands. Guzmán is one of the last old-school Mexican capos left, outlasted perhaps only by his partner and co-founder of the Sinaloa cartel, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who remains at large in the mountains of Mexico and has never spent time in a jail cell. Today, there are criminal groups and bosses in power that started to up the ante more than 10 years ago. 

One night in September 2006, revelers in the Sol y Sombra bar in Uruapan in the violent southern state of Michoacán got more action than they bargained for when five human heads rolled onto the dance floor. It was a warning from the Gulf cartel, a rival to Guzmán’s organization, to stay off its turf. The incident made headlines around the world and signaled a new low in drug cartel violence.

Things went downhill from there, but with no major thanks to El Chapo. His Sinaloa cartel and the increasingly dominant Jalisco New Generation cartel are widely considered to be Mexico’s two strongest remaining criminal organizations following the fragmentation that has taken place in the past decade. Many crime syndicates fell apart as a result of a U.S.-funded government crackdown on cartels that has taken out regional leaders, decapitating parts of various organizations and creating power vacuums.

Those vacuums have been filled by the kind of medieval violence not seen when El Chapo and El Mayo first got started. That didn’t start until the early 2000s, with the arrival of the Zetas, a new crime group with its origins in Mexico’s special forces army division. With the unprecedented firepower that came with the military training and experience of its members, grenades and automatic weapons became must-haves for any self-respecting narco in Mexico with the will to win. The Zeta group is widely regarded as having detonated an arms race among cartels, and it also began perpetrating the kind of violence against civilians not seen before. The Zetas set fire to a casino in Monterrey in 2011, killing more than 50 people, and tossed grenades into Independence Day celebrations in the southern city of Morelia in Michoacán state, in 2008.


“The Zetas upped the ante,” says Jaime López, a former Mexican law enforcement official turned security analyst, explaining how the group used horrific violence to extend its reach into extortion and other local predatory activities. Not long after the demise of the Zetas began the rise of the New Generation Jalisco cartel, headed by Nemesio “El Mencho” Cervantes, who has a $10 million price on his head in the U.S. 

“El Mencho loves to kill. He likes to intimidate. El Mencho is ruthless. He is far more ruthless, far more coldblooded than Guzmán,” says Mike Vigil, former chief of international operations at the DEA who spent nearly two decades working in Mexico. It was under his watch that cartel henchmen massacred 15 police officers in the state of Jalisco in April 2015 and weeks later brought down an army helicopter with a grenade launcher. 

“Mencho crossed the line when he downed the army helicopter. That, in and by itself, turned him from a law enforcement problem into a national security one,” says López.

Vigil argues that Guzmán was more “surgical” in his application of violence but that the Sinaloans still had to show their strength to continue their dominance of Mexico’s criminal landscape. “One said that [El Chapo] didn’t go looking for trouble, but he didn’t shrink away from it,” says Vigil.

So would authorities ever consider a deal that could set Guzmán free? Not in a million years. “They are throwing the book and bookshelf at him because he’s really high profile, which makes sense,” says López. Vigil agrees, noting that the idea of Guzmán being set free is far-fetched. “The possibility of El Chapo being released early from prison is less probable than the earth exploding tomorrow. He will now be nothing more than a mere chapter in the dark world of drug trafficking,” he says.

But as Guzmán gets put away for life, it’s worth remembering that both Mexican and U.S. authorities know they are facing a new threat level from the El Menchos of Mexico’s criminal underworld. During his time as U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions swung the crosshairs squarely onto the Jalisco New Generation cartel and its leader. Homicides in Mexico are at an all-time high, and El Mencho and his contemporaries remain at large south of the border.

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