There was a sigh of relief when the Mexican government successfully re-captured drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman last week. El Chapo, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, is arguably the most powerful drug trafficker in the world, exporting volumns of illegal narcotics globally and spreading violence in its wake. However, DEA Agent Mike Vigil told The Cipher Brief that El Chapo’s capture will not have a significant impact on the drug trade, or what he believes will be a permanent campaign against illicit drugs, until the United States can reduce its demand for drugs.
The Cipher Brief: How was El Chapo captured? How did the U.S. and Mexico work together to capture El Chapo?
Michael Vigil: The United States and Mexico have a good working relationship and continue to share an abundance of information derived from both technical and human sources on transnational organized crime networks operating in Mexico. This includes the powerful Sinaloa Cartel headed by Joaquin Guzman Loera, aka Chapo, the most ruthless and cunning drug lord in the world. With very little formal education, he has built a criminal empire that operates in 6,000 U.S. cities and over 40 countries. It supplies about 60 percent of the drugs consumed in our country.
The daring escape of Guzman six months ago resulted in the largest manhunt in the history of Mexico. The Mexican government, greatly embarrassed, committed thousands of security forces and hundreds of intelligence analysts in order to capture him. Mexican security forces began conducting numerous telephone wire intercepts on individuals associated with Guzman. This included several of his attorneys who were in constant contact with Guzman. The intercepted calls led to a Mexican actress, Kate del Castillo. She is an attractive actress who played a seductive cartel leader in a television series called La Reina del Sur (The Queen of the South). Guzman became enamored with her and began to communicate directly with her through blackberry telephones.
The Mexican marines also effectively began to constrict the terrain that Guzman used in maneuvering and concealing himself. This forced Guzman to flee the rugged mountainous areas in the state of Sinaloa and flee to the city of Los Mochis, where he was captured after an intense gun battle, in which five traffickers and one marine were killed. The DEA and other U.S. agencies worked closely with the Mexican government in providing information on Guzman since his escape, but all the credit goes to Mexico’s security forces, especially the marines who have become the spear point of Mexico’s counter-drug efforts.
TCB: What impact will El Chapo’s capture have on Mexican drug production and distribution? What does this tell us about combatting the War on Drugs?
MV: The capture of Guzman provides a great moral victory, but it will not have a significant impact on drug production and distribution. The Sinaloa Cartel is the most powerful drug trafficking network in the world, and its overall leadership is extremely strong. Ismael “Mayo” Zambada, the underboss of the cartel, was in charge when Guzman was incarcerated. He is one of the last remaining “old guard” capos in Mexico and is highly respected by the drug trafficking community. Although he is wanted in the U.S. and Mexico, Zambada has been able to elude capture by maintaining a low profile and paying large sums of money for protection. He has expanded the cartel’s operations and ensured its survival in the violent conflict with other drug trafficking organizations such as the Zeta’s, Tijuana cartel, Juarez cartel, and the Knights Templar.
In order to dismantle the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico now has to attack its infrastructure in a strategic manner. Its security forces have to identify and seize cartel assets, such as properties and bank accounts. Furthermore, it has to arrest and bring to justice those officials who provide protection to the organization. With the recapture of Guzman, the work of Mexico is actually only beginning, and it will need strong will and full support of its judiciary for a top to bottom destruction of the Sinaloa cartel.
I do not describe counterdrug efforts as a “war,” because all wars have an end and therefore, to me, it is better described as a permanent campaign against illicit drugs. It is a campaign that will continue until we reduce the insatiable demand in the U.S., which drives drug trafficking and its related crime and violence. This requires a strong commitment by each and every community—families, schools, and religious institutions—to educate our young at a very early age of the dangers regarding drug abuse. It is not an issue that should only involve law enforcement but every citizen of our country.
TCB: After having escaped prison twice, there are fears that El Chapo will do it again. Can you explain the extradition process and the debate surrounding it? How could extradition prevent El Chapo’s escape, and what are the consequences of not extraditing him?
MV: Extradition requests to Mexico must be made through diplomatic channels and needs to contain a description of the offense, which is the basis for the solicitation. It must be accompanied by a statement of the facts of the case; the text of the legal provisions describing the essential elements of the offense; the facts and personal information of the person sought; a copy of the arrest warrant issued by a judge or other judicial officer; evidence which would justify the apprehension and commitment for trial of the person sought; when the request relates to a convicted person, a certified copy of the judgment of conviction must be submitted.
In the case of urgency, a provisional arrest may be requested, which will initiate the necessary steps to arrest of the individual. However, the provisional arrest will be terminated within a period of 60 days after the arrest of the individual if the formal extradition package has not been received. A judge will review the merits of the request and then make a determination. If the recommendation is to extradite, it will be sent to the Ministry of Foreign Relations that will make the final decision.
The extradition treaty between Mexico and the U.S. was signed in 1978 and ratified in 1980. Unfortunately, the history of extradition between both countries has not been characterized by emphatic cooperation on either side. It has been overshadowed by reluctance and mistrust. Although it seems to be getting better, it is still sporadic, but Mexico has in the recent past sent several Mexican drug lords to the U.S.
The debate surrounding extradition focuses on many issues, such as the potential mistreatment of nationals extradited to the U.S. or the fact that they will not receive a fair trial. Mexico doesn’t believe in the death penalty and will not extradite anyone unless it receives assurances that capital punishment will not be imposed. Another significant factor is that of national dignity, in which Mexico will appear to be weak and not be able to deal with its own criminals.
Extradition proceedings in Mexico can last anywhere from six months to six years. Guzman has the best legal representation money can buy and can stall the process for years unless the Mexican government acts decisively.
All drug lords fear extradition, and Guzman is no exception. If he remains in Mexico, he will continue to have access to his criminal organization. He will also be able to bribe and intimidate authorities and possibly engineer a third escape. If extradited, Guzman would no longer have this support system, and bribery and intimidation will be extremely difficult. He knows that once convicted, he will never be a free man again.
TCB: The Rolling Stone interview has been really controversial throughout this entire ordeal. How could law enforcement have used the article to help locate El Chapo?
MV: The article in the Rolling Stone didn’t play a role in the capture of Guzman. It was telephone wire intercepts and other investigative tactics that resulted in his arrest. Unfortunately, the interview was actually quite superficial and did not reveal anything new. The value comes from self-incriminating statements made by Guzman, which can be used in criminal proceedings in the U.S.