This weekend, federal officials captured one of the most-wanted men in the world. Drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, is likely responsible for the deaths of thousands of people and has become one of the richest men in the world through his oversight of the Sinaloa cartel.
The capture was the result of major operations involving Mexican authorities and several U.S. agencies who gathered intelligence over a period of years, and is widely viewed as a “landmark victory,” if for no other reason than that it puts a bad actor behind bars and may help to restore faith in Mexico’s law enforcement system. But headlines boasting that the capture signals “progress” in the War on Drugs may not be looking at the long game — a 40-year battle with little progress to limit use or abuse of drugs, let alone the violence and corruption that accompanies the illicit drug trade.
“I think the big story is that nothing is going to happen,” said Sean Dunagan, a longtime former Drug Enforcement Agency intelligence research specialist who was evacuated from Mexico due to cartel violence. “At the end of the day, the industry is going to continue on just like Ford Motors.”
One step forward; two steps back
Dunagan’s personal experience “fighing” the drug war for 13-plus years bears out this prediction. So does history. In 2010, the Associated Press declared that after 40 years, $1 trillion, and hundreds of thousands of lives (an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 lives in Mexico alone), the so-called “War on Drugs” had failed to reach any of its goals. Consider the trajectory of Mexico’s other major rival cartel, Los Zetas. In July, President Enrique Pena Nieto scored what was described as a major public relations victory with the capture of key leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales. Before that, Mexican authorities reportedly killed leader Heriberto “El Lazca” Lazcano. And in the years prior, it was Osiel Cardenas Guillen’s arrest and extradition to the United States that redefined the organization. But every time, the organization has emerged in another form, with a new leader, and erupting in new turmoil. Over the years, the original organization broke up into Zetas and another cartel, Gulf. Zetas fractured into many smaller sub-cartels, who sometimes coordinate. But after the death of a major leader, they all compete to fill the void.
And thus continues the cycle. After every major capture or kill, power struggles follow. Cartels re-align, and violence continues unabated, oftentimes in new, unpredictable ways. In fact, in some ways progress may move backward. Sylvia Longmire, a drug war consultant who has worked on counter-terrorism, has said the arrest of Chapo could actually make things worse, as it could strengthen the Zetas, generally regarded as an even more violent and menacing organization than the Sinaloa cartel. In other places like Afghanistan, moves to eradicate drug production has driven the low-level players towards the Taliban.
Asked to estimate the amount of resources involved in snagging someone like El Chapo, Dunagan estimated at least “hundreds of people and thousands of hours.” “It’s a tremendous outlay.”
“The arrest is a good microcosm of what we get for spending that kind of money,” Dunagan said. “What we get, is you know, no real substantive progress.”
Defectors on the front lines
Dunagan is a member of a strong and growing group known as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, made up of individuals who have witnessed this cycle of violence, and failure, and are imploring the United State to try something new. “As long as we continue the failed strategy of prohibition, violence and corruption will be hallmarks of the drug trade,” he said. “It’s not a law enforcement problem and it’s not a law enforcement solution.”
Another member, Richard Newton, left his post as an interdiction aviation pilot — thwarting cocaine being smuggled into the United States — after he saw an increase in supply of cocaine and a decrease in price despite his unit’s efforts, while colleagues died on the job. “I figured it was not worth risking my life to support a failed public policy of prohibition,” he said.
During Dunagan’s 13-plus years working for the Drug Enforcement Administration, Dunagan saw flailing efforts in Guatemala and in Mexico. He said one of the most remarkable shifts was when the Mexican military started policing the drug war — something former President Felipe Calderon did out of desperation. He said the “use of the military for civilian law enforcement was troubling because it’s a tacit acknowledgement that the local institutions are unable to do that.” And while Mexico’s deployment of the military was due in part to government dysfunction, Dunagan says he sees alarmingly similar militaristic tactics emerging in the United States, such as military-style raids that often result in tragedy.
As he left office, Calderon conceded it was “impossible” to win the drug war and implored the United States to find a way to reduce demand for illicit drugs, hinting at legalization as an option. Calderon is one of a growing number of Latin American leaders who are asking for an end to prohibition. And in the strongest move yet, Uruguay became the first country to legalize marijuana last year.
But it is U.S. consumption that drives cartel profit motives, and a real shift away from prohibition will likely start at home. Some like Dunagan advocate for an eventual end to prohibition of all drugs. But nationwide legalization of marijuana would be a good start, he says.
Alternatives to prohibition
Estimates vary about how significant it would be if the United States were to legalize just marijuana at the federal level. But most agree: it would at the very least hit the cartel where it hurts. One recent study found that U.S. marijuana legalization could cut Mexican cartel profits by as much as a third. And even a conservative RAND estimate found that drug cartels could lose 20 percent of their revenue from legalization in California alone. Longmire agreed that taking marijuana off the black market would “make a dent” but that the cartels would adjust. Recovering from that sort of financial blow, however, likely wouldn’t occur overnight. And in the meantime, Dunagan said he believes other countries would follows the United States’ lead and further reform their laws. In Mexico and several other Latin American countries, possession of small quantities of drugs is already decriminalized.
Longmire, a commentator on the drug war who has experience doing counter-narcotics work in California, supports marijuana legalization, even as she warned in a New York Times op-ed that doing so would not debilitate the cartels. Still, she says she hesitates to support legalization of other drugs because of their greater potential harm, while understanding that position. “I know what we’re doing now is not working.” she told ThinkProgress. “People are going to use drugs, to escape, to have fun, to party. Whether legal or illegal. So you legalize and then that takes care of the illegal issue. And then you focus on the public health.”
Even in the absence of U.S. legalization or other drug reform, Dunagan says U.S. investment in fighting the drug war abroad is in many ways counter-productive. What motivates those on the front lines of the war, he says, is that the big players like Chapo are almost always really bad actors who deserve to be locked up. We don’t want to facilitate allowing these individuals to act with impunity. But on a larger scale, he says, no volume of arrests will ever “make it an unattractive career compared to other options that people that get into the drug trade have. … Everything we do at the end of the day just serves to increase the level of violence.”