The arrest of El Chapo: a minor victory within a losing battle

Paul Hazelton

To the glee of the FBI, the DEA, the media and most of the public, Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, a.k.a. “El Chapo,” the legendary capo of the Sinaloa cartel — the largest narco empire in the world — has again been apprehended.

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To avoid another escape and further embarrassment, El Chapo will be extradited back to where most of his drugs end up — the U.S. For now, though, Chapo’s back in the same prison he escaped from back in July and reportedly, the Mexican government isn’t taking any chances. They are moving El Chapo from metal cell floor to metal cell floor every couple of hours. They keep their eyes suctioned-cupped to security camera feeds and motion sensors track his every move. Another escape, barring some act of Beelzebub and/or a cataclysmic event, seems impossible.

And that’s wonderful, because America and Mexico have finally succeeded in slamming the cell door on the FBI’s No. 1 fugitive — a ruthless psychopath who’s facilitated thousands of murders on both sides of the border and aided millions of Americans in starting up their own drug addictions. If you listen to news outlets like CNN and others, you’ve probably heard that this development is a substantial victory in the War on Drugs. With a major cartel now weakened, they say, the supply of drugs and the violence stemming from Mexico will surely be diminished.

Of course, that’s a lie — a happy delusion many of us buy into to justify our country’s wasteful war on inanimate objects, minorities and poor people. In reality, drugs will never be eradicated, and taking out one drug dealer — even one so infamous in the narco biosphere as Chapo Guzman — is akin to plucking a pebble out of a landslide. As El Chapo stated during his interview with Sean Penn, “The day I don’t exist, (drug trafficking) is not going to decrease in any way at all.” And he’s right.

According to Mexico’s Attorney General, there are two major cartels working inside the country with the rest having splintered into smaller regional gangs. But that’s still a lot of competition and it’s likely that El Chapo’s incarceration (even if he manages to run his empire from behind the cinderblocks of a U.S. supermax) will be viewed by his competitors as a weakness. With that in mind, taking out Guzman may only accelerate the violence across the border and decentralize control of drug trafficking, thereby making it harder to stop. Even if that doesn’t happen, the best-case scenario is one in which an El Chapo crony assumes his position and offers relative stability but sustained drug flow.

Besides that, using and abusing drugs is as American as loose gun regulations, football concussions and Kim Kardashian obsessions. It is, for all intents and purposes, an American pastime. In fact, it’s estimated that we ingest more drugs than any other population on Earth, with market projections ranging from $200 billion to $750 billion. As any economics major will tell you, that’s a lot of money and while that remains true, there will always be people happy to oblige the demand, regardless of the risk.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that the drug war is ill-intentioned or morally wrong, only that it is futile. Besides packing our prisons and courts sardine-style, wasting billions of taxpayer dollars and hiking up the price while decreasing the quality of drugs, what has it accomplished? In 45 years since it began, the answer remains — absolutely nothing.

There has to be a more sound policy, because this one simply isn’t working. I would suggest that if the U.S. truly wants to stem the prevalence and importation of narcotics, we might be better served by investing in treatment programs and education instead of incarceration and the brand of faux science/propaganda the DEA currently produces. An even better solution, as contentious as it sounds, might be to simply legalize all drugs. This would allow the United States to regulate the quality, price, dose and availability of drugs as well as tax them. That would take money away from the cartels and help us pay off our immense national debt and a much-needed bandaid for our splintering infrastructure. Additionally, this plan could allow us to identify drug addicts, which would then allow us to supply treatment programs to them.

This isn’t to say that illegal drug sales won’t still exist or that people like El Chapo won’t walk the earth, but it’s a lot better than attempting to exterminate products that are seemingly immortal. When members of law enforcement say things like, “Drugs are an epidemic” on shows like “Cops,” they’re not exaggerating. Drugs and drug addiction affect almost every American — from family and acquaintance to factory worker and politician, we all know the horrors it can reap. But the problem here isn’t drugs themselves or the impoverished people that sell and make them — it’s how we’ve been handling them. Who knows, though? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe El Chapo will be the last of his kind and perhaps people will lose their appetite for mind-altering substances, thereby ending the drug war.  

Collegian Columnist Paul Hazelton can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @HazeltonPaul.