Janine Jackson interviewed Laura Carlsen about the arrest of Mexican drug cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman for the January 15, 2016, CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
JANINE JACKSON: US media find drug cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera a colorful character, and the fact that media played a role in his recent capture—Guzman appears to have been caught out by his own Hollywood ambitions; his arrest followed a meeting with actors Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo about a proposed biopic—well, that just made the story still more likely to garner press attention in the US.
But is the story serving as an opening for serious questions about the efficacy and impact of the US “war on drugs” in Mexico? Joining us now to discuss these issues is Laura Carlsen, director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy. She joins us by phone from Mexico City.
Welcome back to CounterSpin, Laura Carlson.
LAURA CARLSEN: Thank you, Janine. Thanks for the invitation to be on the show.
JJ: Well, it’s not to say that the arrest is not significant. But you might imagine from some of the US coverage that Guzman was single-handedly killing Chicago youth and hand-delivering billions of dollars of drugs. I’m not holding my breath for mention of money-laundering by HSBC bank, for example, for which the bank received a deferred prosecution agreement brokered by Loretta Lynch, who now as attorney general, we’re told, is very amped to get at “El Chapo.”
But still, there are clearly other institutional players that are key to a drug cartel’s operations. So how much or how little is that bigger picture going to be affected by Guzman’s capture?
LC: I think it’s going to be affected very little, if at all. What we know about this strategy, the kingpin strategy, that the Drug Enforcement Administration of the United States has been imposing on Mexico through the drug war and in other places in the world—it doesn’t work. What happens is that they take out a capo, even a capo with the kind of power that Joaquin Guzman had, and the jobs are distributed within the cartel; there’s always other people who can do them.
We know that from the fact that Joaquin Guzman was already in prison, and the cartel merely continued to traffic illicit drugs and to carry out the rest of its operations much the same, even the DEA says, without really any appreciable change during that time. So what we’re expecting is that there won’t be a significant impact on drug trafficking to the United States, and not on the amount of violence that it generates here in Mexico, either.
JJ: The New York Times on January 12 had a piece, “El Chapo Case Draws Mexico Closer to US,” which celebrated that now Mexico has started letting US agents carry guns. I was struck by the fact that at one point the story said that early in his administration, “instead of focusing on security, catching kingpins and intercepting drugs, [Mexican president] Mr. PeÃ±a Nieto wanted to make trade and economics the priority.”
Now, I know what the Times is trying to say here, that PeÃ±a Nieto tried to deflect from concerns about safety with some kind of neoliberal handwaving, and I’m not even saying that’s wrong. But I just find it interesting the way that language accepts a division, or even a contrast, between drug-trafficking and economics. You know: Drugs are a security issue and not an economic story. That seems to be a big mistake.
LC: Yeah, I totally agree with that. And I think that we see it in the fact that these operations do continue after all these sophisticated security measures and the billions of dollars that go into the intelligence and sending the armed forces into the streets in Mexico. There’s no impact on this. And that really has to do with the fact that this problem is at root an economic problem.
We’re talking about a market of approximately – and of course the guesses are over a wide range, because they are guesses, given that, due to prohibition, it’s a clandestine market—but we’re talking about approximately $38 billion a year. With that kind of money at stake, you can bet that no matter what happens, these cartels, which are transnational, they’re not just in Mexico, they take the drugs over the border with the complicity of agents there and they’re distributed to cities throughout the United States, and you really don’t hear much of that part either. But you can bet that these operations will go on because of how lucrative the business is.
JJ: Well, to its credit, the Los Angeles Times did end their piece with a quote from a former DEA agent making just the point that you’re making that the arrest of Joaquin Guzman is unlikely to slow Sinaloa drug trafficking. But the problem is that the story ends there, you know, rather than sort of beginning there. If we’re serious about talking about ending the violence, in particular, associated with the drug war, where might coverage go from there?
LC: It’s been striking that nobody is really discussing that. And I think that has to do with the way this drug war has been taken to the terrain of image, rather than real impact on the lives of people or improving the situation, which is dire here in Mexico, of the citizenry being held prey to organized crime in complicity with government officials.
No one is talking about how now, with the arrest of “El Chapo” Guzman, there should be investigations that enable them to dismantle the financial empire of the Sinaloa cartel, which is huge. They’re not talking about what’s going to happen on the money-laundering front. And what we’ve seen in the past is that very little happens. Although supposedly they would now have the gold mine of information in terms of how the Sinaloa cartel operates and how it moves money around through legitimate banks, as you mentioned before, and how it continues this as a business.
With all this information, in the past when they’ve captured “El Chapo” Guzman, they have not made a dent on that financial empire. And there’s where you get the distinct impression that there are very powerful economic interests both in Mexico and in the United States that are being protected, even as headlines are splashed all over the world regarding the capture of kingpins.
So this strategy in many ways is a smokescreen. And “smokescreen,” if you look at the social networks and the response of the Mexican people, is a word that comes up quite frequently. What they’re saying is, yes, they captured “El Chapo” Guzman for the third time, because they let him go twice, yet nobody’s talking about who’s behind it; they’re not talking about the government officials that were undoubtedly involved in his escapes in the past and what’s going to happen to them. They’re not talking about how to bring down the Sinaloa cartel. And nobody is providing any guarantee or even simple statements in terms of how this could diminish illicit drug-trafficking, or weaken the Sinaloa cartel and the other cartels here in Mexico that operate in the United States with the complicity of networks in the United States as well.
JJ: Well, I want to draw you out, just finally, on that complicity. Because it’s interesting: It’s not that you don’t hear references to corruption with regard to the Mexican government, but when we talk about drug cartels, the impression that you get from US media—which is a lot about image—it’s the image that the Mexican state is weak, and the portrayal is of the United States needing to go in and sort of shore up the Mexican state, or the PeÃ±a Nieto government, so that they can fight the drug cartels, so that they can fight the violence. But if the problem is complicity and corruption, then strengthening the state, you know, as simple as that, doesn’t seem to be the right way forward.
LC: No, it’s really a pretense for intervention in Mexico. And we’ve seen the way that the embassy has grown, the way that security forces, the United States security forces and intelligence forces, have come into Mexico with this pretext and have really developed a presence that before they couldn’t develop, because of concerns, and very legitimate concerns, about national sovereignty.
So you also see that, when they talk about corruption, this idea that the cartels are infiltrating cities within the United States, that they’re running the drug-trafficking operations in the United States, that “El Chapo” is responsible for the heroin that’s killing people in Chicago almost single-handedly: All this is a way to ignore the problem that exists in the United States and the failures that exist in the United States.
Every border has two sides. Every once in awhile we have a case of some local sheriff in Texas or low-level official who’s caught as being part of this network, and yet there’s almost no discussion of how these drugs are able to pass into the United States and be distributed throughout the country with almost no hindrance.
So the idea that Mexico is the only country that’s involved in corruption here, the idea that the Mexican state is the only government that is failing in terms of this war on drugs, is really, again, another smokescreen, and another way of not looking at the responsibility of the United States. People talk about the responsibility of the United States in terms of consumption. And yet, when you look at the root problems, it’s corruption in the United States, and it’s also the whole regime of prohibition.
By prohibiting these drugs, and especially marijuana now when you have such a strong grassroots feeling that it’s not even a particularly dangerous drug, and it’s already been legalized in a number of states – this is really the problem that we have to take a look at. Wouldn’t it be better to get rid of prohibition so that these markets can be regulated, and so that the United States can take on its role of actually tracking these drugs and avoiding the situation in which criminals, by definition, are the ones who benefit from the trafficking?
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Laura Carlsen of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy. You can find their work online at CIPonline.org. Laura Carlson, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
LC: Thank you.