I’ve delved into Mexico a bit in my fiction. The deepest was The Devil You Don’t Know, which not only looked at the overall situation in Mexico, but also the consequences of focusing too much on High Value Targets.
We seem to be obsessed with getting the “leaders,” the HVTs. (Not saying that there aren’t people working on “going up the killchain,” but culturally, our focus is always on getting the guy at the top. Whether it was the “Thunder Run” to Baghdad, that was supposed to end the war in days, in a repeat of Desert Storm, or the focus on getting Bin Laden, or al Baghdadi, or El Chapo. The idea seems to be that if you get the guy at the top, then the bad guys will collapse.
Except that it doesn’t work that way. It never really has. Capturing and executing Saddam didn’t end the insurgency. Killing Bin Laden wasn’t the end of Al Qaeda. And from the trial of El Chapo, it’s evident that he really wasn’t that important to the Sinaloa Cartel, either.
As of this writing, the prosecution and defense have finished their closing statements and we don’t know how it will end. Maybe one of the jurors will have been compromised and Guzmán will be acquitted. Most likely he’ll be convicted and sent to prison for the rest of his life.
Whatever the result, in the big picture …
It doesn’t matter.
The Guzmán trial will do nothing to stem the flow of drugs into the United States.
Don’t get me wrong. Guzmán’s conviction for trafficking literally tons of drugs into the United States would be a good thing. He’s not Robin Hood. He’s a killer responsible for untold suffering—surely far more than he’s charged with—and if he spends the rest of his life in prison it will be something like justice.
But his capture has done nothing to ameliorate the American drug problem, and his conviction would be likewise meaningless.
The reason is simple.
By the time of Guzmán’s capture, “escape,” and recapture in the farce that made him a celebrity, he had already lost most of his power.
He was superfluous.
The critical thing to understand is that Guzmán wasn’t—and never would be—the sole “boss” of the Sinaloa cartel. We tend to think of cartels as pyramids, with a single head at the top, but in fact they’re more like wedding cakes with several tiers.
Guzmán was on the top tier, with others, the most important being Juan Esparragoza Moreno, the late Ignacio Coronel Villarreal, and a man named Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who has been prominently featured, albeit in absentia, in this trial.
A time-tested defense-attorney maxim says that if your client is obviously guilty, put someone else on trial. In their opening statement, Guzmán’s lawyers argued that he wasn’t the real boss of the Sinaloa cartel, long the biggest D.T.O. (drug-trafficking organization) in the world. Instead, they claim, that honor belonged to Zambada, and he has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to high-ranking officials in the Mexican government in order to remain, well, in absentia.
Witnesses, including Zambada’s own brother and son, have testified to the same.
But nobody calls Mayo Zambada the “godfather of the drug world,” and that’s the way he likes it. You don’t see Zambada interviewed in Rolling Stone, trying to launch romances with television stars, or working on a biopic about himself, as Guzmán did.
Zambada is a conservative businessman who prefers to stay behind the curtain. (If there is a Don Corleone of Mexican drug lords, it is Ismael Zambada.) And his partner Guzmán was becoming increasingly problematic.
Mob bosses remain in power as long as they’re making other people money. Guzmán had begun to cost people money. At the start of his downfall, he was suffering huge declines in marijuana profits due to legalization in America. Everyone was, and one of the cartel’s responses was to get back into the heroin market for the first time since the 1970s, in order to grab a cut of the American pharmaceutical companies’ booming opioid-addict market. The cartels produced so much heroin that they created a surplus, which, in a reversal of previous policy, they started to sell inside Mexico.
Guzmán got greedy and demanded a cut of the profits from local dealers in Sinaloa, thereby alienating his own power base. Combine that with his increasingly bizarre antics—more about that later—and it’s clear why he had become a liability to his partners, principally Zambada. Sources in Mexico inform me that Zambada—aging and ailing—has been wanting to take his billions and retire quietly.
But he had another problem besides Guzmán: two sons who were facing long sentences in the United States.
Warfare is never about just one man. It is about tribes, nations, networks, and organizations. I think (and this is just a personal theory) that the obsession with HVTs being the keys to ending conflicts (some of which are decades, if not centuries, in the making) comes from the end of World War II. Hitler shot himself, and Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally. This simple narrative, of course, ignores the fact that it took over a year of grinding warfare on one front, and more like four on the other, that systematically crushed the German war machine and, to a degree, the German people, before that happened. Germany would have lost by then whether Hitler killed himself or not.
Wars are not simple. Enemy organizations, especially those that are more tribal in nature, are more like the Hydra; cut off one head, two grow in its place. In the case of El Chapo, he seems to have already been superfluous to the operation of the Sinaloa Cartel long before his capture and extradition.
And setting simple victory conditions, like capturing a particular HVT, does not mean that the war has been won, or is over. Wars are matters of mutual agreement; as long as one side still thinks the war is on, the war is still on.
I’ll be continuing to keep an eye on Mexico and Latin America. They will feature in the upcoming Maelstrom Rising series at some point. You don’t ignore the most vicious irregular war on the planet when you’re developing a scenario for the breakdown of the global order.