Recapture of drug lord may affect the narcotics trade across Texas’ border

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman stands for his prison mug shot.
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman stands for his prison mug shot. Government of Mexico

With Mexico beginning the process of extraditing Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman to the United States, the Texas-Mexico border faces a familiar question and a fresh one: How will the notorious drug kingpin’s recapture affect the region’s drug trade?

And what are the chances he will be sent to Texas to answer for his crimes there?

Guzman was recaptured Friday morning by Mexican marines in Los Mochis, in his home state of Sinaloa, after he escaped from a Mexican maximum-security prison in July. Both Guzman’s fate, and the drug empire controlled by his Sinaloa cartel, hang in the balance, according to Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin America Studies and the director of the Civil Society, Markets and Democracy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Whenever we’ve seen a leader taken out, the waves of disruptions that follow are often quite violent as others try to poach the territory or [because of] fighting within the Sinaloa cartel,” O’Neil said. “There is a likelihood that that could happen.”

From 2008 to 2011, Guzman’s group was partly responsible for the killings of thousands of people in Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, as it fought the Juarez Cartel for control of the drug corridors that extend into Texas and beyond.

Despite his initial arrest in February 2014, a report released Wednesday by the Congressional Research Service indicates that Guzman’s empire could still control more than half of Mexico’s drug trade.

“The Sinaloa [drug trafficking organization] now controls roughly 40% to 60% of Mexico’s drug trade, according to several estimates,” the report states. “It is known for trafficking cocaine, but moves all types of illicit drugs, including heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana, to cities throughout the United States.”

In its 2015 Texas Gang Threat Assessment, the Texas Department of Public Safety listed the Sinaloa cartel as having an active presence on both sides of the border. Last week’s capture doesn’t change the agency’s vigilance, spokesman Tom Vinger said.

“While it is certainly a positive gain when the leader of a ruthless, transnational criminal organization is captured by law enforcement, we know that there are multiple levels of leadership running the Mexican cartels,” Vinger said in an email. “This arrest does not mean law enforcement can rest on its laurels. DPS will continue to work with our federal, state and local partners to combat the drug and human smuggling efforts by ruthless Mexican cartels and their operatives, who commit heinous crimes on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border.”

After Guzman’s initial capture in 2014, little changed in Ciudad Juarez despite concerns that it might return to its violent ways if the hometown Juarez cartel perceived weakness in a rival or if criminal alliances otherwise shifted. Yet the city remained relatively calm, although some parts of the rural Juarez Valley, about 30 miles to the east, saw increased bloodshed.

The dynamic could be markedly different this time because of Guzman’s pending extradition. Two years ago, former Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said Guzman would be extradited in “300 or 400 years.” This time around, Mexican officials are being more cooperative.

“The justification for them not extraditing them last time was that they could safely keep him behind bars and that proved to be not true,” O’Neil said. “So that justification is gone.”

O’Neil said that because Mexico is now willing to send Guzman to the United States — even after what will surely be a long process as his attorneys are allowed to file several appeals — the impact on the border could be different, and Guzman could continue to play a pivotal role.

“I think there’s a lot of scenarios where it could be business as usual. By some accounts, it could take months — maybe years — to be extradited,” she said.” It’s possible he could continue to run his empire from the inside.”

Though the extradition promises to be long and complicated, Texas remains on the list of places Guzman could end up to face an American court. He has been indicted by multiple offices of U.S. attorneys, which are organized under the Justice Department, including the Western District of Texas.

A partially redacted indictment filed in 2012 by the district’s El Paso division charged Guzman with more than a dozen criminal counts that include murder, kidnapping and conspiracy charges.

Guzman is also wanted in Chicago, San Diego, New York and Miami. The Associated Press reported last week that there is no indication where the kingpin will be sent to face charges, though all of the jurisdictions are expected to make a play to have Guzman prosecuted by their federal attorneys.

Despite all the uncertainty around Guzman’s future, some see Mexico’s new willingness to work with American officials on his extradition as a signal of a promising new beginning for the two countries as they move forward on other issues like security and immigration.

O’Neil said a lot of credit goes to Mexican Attorney General Arely Gomez Gonzalez, who indicated when she took office last February that she was willing to have a discussion with American officials on issues her predecessor, Murillo Karam, deemed specific to Mexico.

“[The relationship] has been evolving to be more reciprocal than it had been since” Guzman’s capture in 2014, O’Neil said. “If Mexico cooperates on this rather than just backing off, I think Mexico can ask for other types of assistance or involvement that they want, rather than it being pressured upon them. They can do it on their terms. It gives them a bargaining chip.”