IN an operation gone spectacularly wrong, Mexican authorities last week attempted to arrest Ovidio Guzman Lopez, the son and successor of the infamous drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. The entire sorry affair, which featured a seven-hour gunbattle that raged across the entire city of Culiacan, in many ways exemplified what happens when a campaign against illegal drugs is handled poorly.
El Chapo, the former leader of the dreaded Sinaloa drug cartel, was convicted in a US federal court in February of a multitude of charges, and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. At about the same time, US authorities prepared charges against his son, who has largely replaced his father at the head of the criminal enterprise. On Thursday (Friday in Manila), Mexican police and army units attempted to arrest Lopez on a warrant issued by a Mexican court, in order that he could be extradited to the US to stand trial.
It did not go well. According to reports, Mexican National Guard personnel located Lopez in a house in Culiacan, a city of about 785,000 that is the capital of Sinaloa in northwestern Mexico, and quickly arrested him. Within moments, however, the raiding party was surrounded by dozens of well-armed and angry cartel fighters, equipped with armored vehicles and military-grade heavy weapons. The cartel also launched attacks in a number of other locations across the city, targeting police and military units but in some cases striking at civilians as well, in what was obviously a well-planned and coordinated operation to free its leader.
In a pitched battle that lasted seven hours, at least seven people were killed, dozens wounded and at least nine Mexican security personnel were captured by the cartel. These were later released after the security forces reluctantly decided they had been soundly whipped and withdrew, letting Lopez go free.
The battle capped off a week of misery in Mexico’s long-running drug war. On Monday, 13 police were killed in an ambush by cartel gunmen in the western state of Michoacan. The following day, 14 civilians and one soldier were killed in a gunfight in Tepochica, in the violence-ridden state of Guerrero. Despite a “new approach” by Mexico’s leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, deaths from drug violence this year are currently on track to surpass last year’s record of 33,000 people killed.
So, what is going wrong? According to most analysts, while Obrador’s policy to focus on the root causes of drug criminality and violence — poverty, lack of education and lack of economic opportunities — makes sense over the long term, his policy to try to reduce violence by curbing the aggressiveness of security forces has seemed to embolden the various cartels, who are not only carrying on a fight against the government, but a long-running war with each other. Obrador’s strategy has also been criticized for lacking cohesion, and not giving equal weight to the necessity for security and rooting out corrupt law enforcement and government officials as it does social and economic development. In addition, the federal system of Mexico, which puts a great deal of responsibility for anti-drug efforts on state governments, presents some obstacles to maintaining an effective, coordinated strategy.
Mexico’s sorry experience should be a lesson to everyone with a stake in eliminating the destructive, wasteful effects of the illegal drug trade. While rescuing the future of the country and its people absolutely requires addressing the causes of poverty that allow drugs to take hold in the first place: that must be part of a holistic, forward-looking strategy that includes aggressive efforts to curb criminality and corruption and remove violent elements from society.