This has been a serious issue for many years—Claire Sterling wrote about it in her 1994 book, Thieves World: The Threat of the New Global Network of Organized Crime—and even more deadly now, as this story from City Journal reports.
In the early morning hours of Friday, January 8, 2016, Mexican marines closed in on the world’s most wanted man: Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, a notorious drug trafficker with a net worth estimated near $1 billion. The climactic shootout in Sinaloa, Mexico, took place after Guzmán made a getaway into the sewer system from a house that the authorities had been watching. He was finally apprehended after he reemerged and stole a car. His capture brought to a close six months of humiliation for the Mexican government, which had struggled to explain how Guzmán could escape from a maximum-security prison by walking into the shower, under full view of a video camera, and slipping away through a tiny hole in the floor that led to a 30-foot-deep, mile-long tunnel that had taken perhaps a year to construct. It was the second time that El Chapo had broken out of prison under the noses of Mexican officials. Mexican officials are currently debating whether to hold Guzmán—really, whether they can hold him—or extradite him to the United States, where he faces indictments in multiple federal courts on drug trafficking and murder charges. His organization, the Sinaloa cartel, has smuggled vast quantities of drugs into the United States through elaborate tunnel systems near the border between the two countries.
In Mexico, the confrontation between cartels such as Sinaloa, Los Zetas, and Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) has cost nearly 44,000 lives during the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto. Human rights organizations counted more than 100,000 deaths during the tenure of Nieto’s predecessor. These and other criminal networks originating in Mexico pay bribes and co-opt police chiefs, mayors, local legislators, and municipal and state police. They infiltrate state institutions, such as courts and attorney offices, especially at the local level, spreading corruption and violence across the country. Though usually defined as “Mexican drug cartels,” they don’t confine their operations to Mexico or their activities to drug trafficking. They extort, kidnap, and murder across Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Los Zetas has perpetrated mass murders in Guatemala, while members of Sinaloa operate in Colombia and Venezuela.
As the United States’ interest in extraditing Guzmán shows, the impact of these activities is often felt beyond Latin America. In 2012, the U.S. Justice Department’s Criminal Division pointed out that at least $881 million in proceeds from drug trafficking, some of which involved Sinaloa in Mexico and the Norte del Valle cartel in Colombia, had been laundered through HSBC Bank USA, without being detected. A U.S. district court requested extradition of former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo in 2013, and convicted him in 2014, for laundering millions of dollars through American bank accounts with the help of Jorge Armando Llort, whom he had appointed director of a semi-state-owned bank, Banco de Crédito Hipotecario Nacional. No Guatemalan courts sentenced the bank’s director or the former president.
What few observers realize is that, while El Chapo’s capture made for a dramatic story, the criminal operations of his Sinaloa cartel will proceed almost as if nothing happened. In his notorious Rolling Stone interview with Sean Penn, El Chapo observed: “The day I don’t exist, it’s not going to decrease in any way at all. Drug trafficking does not depend on just one person.”
Sinaloa and other criminal cartels have evolved structures that no longer depend on the direction of single leaders. They have become transnational criminal networks—enormous, decentralized, and difficult to map and control. Their operations, too, have become more varied, not only in their criminal activities but in their infiltration and co-optation of legal entities, including government and law enforcement. Even in some countries with strong rule-of-law traditions, they have overcome judicial systems, reconfigured state institutions, and influenced formal democratic processes.
The reach of these groups and the damage they inflict—human, institutional, and financial—represent one of the most pressing challenges for nation-states in the twenty-first century. Up to now, enforcement agencies in nations around the world have focused much of their efforts on the El Chapo model of cartel-busting—that is, trying to capture “most wanted” crime lords, without accounting for the complexity of criminal networks. But the advent of new technological tools that allow a better understanding of these groups and their workings, along with growing awareness of the problem they pose, could lead to a more effective approach.