‘El Chapo’ is likely going to prison for the rest of his life. That probably won’t make Mexico safer

Share via

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera was more than just a drug trafficker. He was also a folk hero.

His improbable rise from the dusty mountains of Sinaloa to the top of the world’s most powerful drug cartel has been recounted in films, television shows and dozens of brassy narcocorridos, which praised his work ethic and seemingly magical ability to evade authorities.

In the song “El Chapo Guzman,” the band Los Tucanes de Tijuana crooned:

With his power,

El Chapo bought the big bosses.


That’s why throughout the country,

The law never found him.

The lyrics now need an update. On Tuesday in a U.S. federal courtroom in Brooklyn, N.Y., a jury convicted Guzman of 10 counts including drug trafficking and murder.

Guzman, who escaped from Mexican lockups not once but twice, will probably spend the rest of his life in a maximum security prison in the United States.

His conviction is a major win for U.S. and Mexican authorities, who have poured billions of dollars into their high-profile fight against Mexican drug cartels, and who have painted Guzman as a key instigator of bloody cartel battles.

But experts in Mexico say Guzman’s conviction is primarily symbolic. It may demonstrate that even the most powerful cartel leaders can’t stay above the law forever. But they say it is unlikely to slow the flow of narcotics to the United States or reduce bloodshed in Mexico — and could easily have the opposite effect.


“This is only going to bring more violence,” said Eduardo Guerrero, a security consultant in Mexico City.

In the more than two years since Guzman was extradited to the United States to face trial, drug production in Mexico has risen and the homicide rate has reached a record high.

The Sinaloa cartel that Guzman created has been weakened by infighting in his absence. That has opened the way for newly ascendant groups that are pioneering new ways of operating.

Guzman’s main interest was in moving cocaine, heroin and other drugs across the border. He sought to maintain peaceful relationships with locals in the areas where he worked.

But the Jalisco New Generation cartel and other criminal groups that have gained power in recent years have diversified into many other types of criminal activities, including fuel theft, cargo robbery and extortion. These new groups are more likely to try to control locals through violence and fear, Guerrero said.

The emphasis on the Guzman trial shows a misunderstanding of how Mexico’s violence works, said political analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor at CIDE, a public research center in Mexico City.


“We’ve known for a very long time that just trying to capture or kill the leaders of criminal groups doesn’t really end the problem,” he said. “It only turns things more violent.”

Though Guzman’s trial was big news in the United States, many Mexicans tuned it out.

“There’s a certain social fatigue with these issues,” Bravo said. “Clandestine graves, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances. People are tired of it.”

Americans may have been shocked to hear allegations that Guzman and his associates paid bribes to people at nearly every level of Mexican government, but those aren’t exactly revelations in Mexico, where most people take such corruption for granted.

Bravo would have liked the trial to shed more light about what happens when drugs cross the border, and how American criminal networks help Mexicans move drugs and launder money.

“I had hoped that we would learn something new about this,” he said. “We still pretend that the problem is exclusively Mexican.”

After the verdict was announced Tuesday, some Mexicans said they hoped Guzman’s conviction would allow the country to move into a different era, one where drug traffickers aren’t regarded as stars.


“The problem in Mexico is that on television they treat drug traffickers as role models, with incredible homes and private planes,” said Rosalia Cruz, a high school history teacher in Mexico City. “In a country with so much poverty, of course young people want to be like them.”

“But the programs do not show all the suffering that the narcos generate,” she said. “They are criminals and deserve to be in jail, not have television series made about them.”

Others wondered whether Guzman’s conviction might only fuel his notoriety. After all, two years after Guzman’s extradition, his face — square jaw, black mustache — is still ubiquitous in Mexico, where it is emblazoned on posters, ball caps and T-shirts.

“People made El Chapo’s life a telenovela,” said Ricardo Ruiz, the manager of a Mexico City sports club.

“He is already a legend, and even if he is in jail, the stories about him will continue.”

Twitter: @katelinthicum

Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.