The false allure of El Chapo’s capture

My book review appeared in last weekend’s Australian newspaper:

El Jefe: The Stalking of Chapo Guzman

By Alan Feuer

Simon and Schuster, 256pp, $32.99

On the day in February 2019 that the world’s most notorious drug cartel boss, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, was found guilty in a Brooklyn courtroom, the prosecution was ecstatic.

Richard P. Donoghue, the US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, claimed the decision was a victory for the 100,000 murdered in Mexico and the drug war itself.

“There are those who say the war on drugs is not worth fighting. Those people are wrong.”

Undoubtedly Guzman caused carnage across his birth-country Mexico and the world with heinous acts of enabling mass murder, torture, social dislocation, gang violence and distribution of deadly drugs.

And yet after his incarceration, violence in Mexico hit an all-time high in 2019 with some 35,000 people murdered. Cartels are now balkanising, diversifying their interests beyond just drugs into petrol, and key parts of the country are off-limits to outsiders due to extreme violence.

The drug war is alive and well with US demand for illicit substances soaring. Little has changed on the ground since Guzman was taken off the street and during Covid-19 his Sinaloa cartel has provided aid packages to grateful Mexicans. When the state is absent, drug syndicates step in to fill the breach from Mexico to Colombia and Italy to Brazil.

In July 2019, Guzman was given a life sentence plus 30 years and will almost certainly die in an American prison. At his sentencing hearing, he spoke for the first time since his conviction, through an interpreter, and accused authorities of abuse. “I have been physically, psychologically, mentally tortured 24 hours a day.’’

He’s now living in the US’s most secure prison, the so-called Alcatraz of the Rockies, where Robert Hood, a Supermax warden between 2002 and 2005, has said that it’s “not built for humanity. I think that being there, day by day, it’s worse than death”.

Reporter Alan Feuer covered the Guzman trial for The New York Times and has produced a riveting book about the years-long chase to monitor and capture the cartel head. El Jefe: The Stalking of Chapo Guzman is a story that also aims to explain his allure.

“Guzman’s myth arose from the way in which his natural talents – for corruption and escape – played in front of a specific local audience, one that thrilled to see the [Mexican] government embarrassed”, he writes.

Because the Mexican government has often been incompetent and corrupt, Feuer concludes, when Guzman escaped twice from Mexican prisons, “it reinforced a pre-existing belief that Mexico’s rulers were the fools that everybody assumed them to be”.

Guzman’s success in launching a multi-billion-dollar drug business in the early 1980s, Feuer explains, was wonderful luck because it was when demand for cocaine reached a high in the US. Washington has long pressured Mexico to pursue a militarised response to the drug trade and the results have been disastrous. Feuer is clear-eyed about the carnage, connecting narco-trafficking to the financial wellbeing of the state.

He lambasts President Felipe Calderon, who served between 2006 and 2012, for misunderstanding the nature of the threat. “By 2009, his third year in office, Mexico’s gangsters were taking in an estimated thirty billion dollars a year, second only to the total earnings of the national oil industry.’’

One of the more intriguing stories told in depth by Feuer is about how Guzman’s IT fixer, Cristián Rodriguez, had designed a supposedly encrypted system for the drug boss to communicate safely, and his recruitment by the FBI in 2011.

This breakthrough allowed US authorities a unique window into the cartel’s business but it wasn’t enough to ensnare Guzman. It took years more of surveillance and good luck before he was captured.

For a book on the drug war, this one is noticeably light on political commentary. This isn’t mostly a criticism as much as observation because the impact of Guzman’s capture on the illicit drug trade has been non-existent.

Washington still spends billions of dollars a year on propping up corrupt regimes to fight its futile “war on drugs”, from Honduras to Mexico, and the ultimate goals are unclear.

The growth in Latin America of a movement towards legalised and regulated drugs, a possibility though still many years away, will one day make the life and brutal times of Guzman seem unnecessary. Until that day, though, the world will see many more Guzmans.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, filmmaker and author of Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs.