El Chapo, Narcos, and the Central American Corridor

After escaping a Mexican prison in July 2015, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was tracked down by Mexican marines at a safe house on January 8, 2016.

On January 8, 2016, Mexico made international headlines after capturing infamous narco-trafficker Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. The end of the 6-month manhunt was announced triumphantly on social media by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Twitter account:

[Translation: Mission Accomplished: We got him. I wish to inform all Mexicans that Joaquin Guzman Loera has been detained]

Chapo’s capture is one which the Mexican government desperately needed. Prior to this capture, Guzman had been arrested–and had escaped prison–twice. The second of these escapes, which generated buzz for its boldness and complexity, occurred in July 2015 through a one-mile long tunnel connected to a safe house. The tunnel was dug 10 metres under his cell, and fitted with ventilation pipes, lights, and a motorcycle track. A stark contrast from the messy prison escapes concocted in expensive Hollywood movies.

Mexico wanted to show that it was not weak. After a 6-month manhunt, Mexican marines locked onto Guzman’s location in the early hours on January 8. They engaged in a firefight, had him escape yet again, and later intercepted him before bringing him into custody. Later, the government went on the PR offensive and released the video of a GoPro worn by one of the Marines. The video sends a clear message: Narcos are tough, but government is tougher.

From Colombia to Mexico

Drug trafficking has a knack for making hot TV/movie screen material. Classics such as Blow and Scarface, and the more contemporary Sicario and Breaking Bad, are a few examples.

Click to see the Netflix trailer

Enter Netflix’s production of Narcos: a new hit show which has managed to recapture the curious minds of classics and contemporaries alike through its portrayal of narco-trafficking at its most brutal. In sum, Narcos outlines the story of infamous real-life Colombian Drug Lord Pablo Escobar in the 1980s who, through his tight management of the Medellin Cartel and the use of terror tactics (ie. political assassinations and bombing campaigns), built an international cocaine empire. Escobar repeatedly made it onto Forbes’ list of Wealthiest People in the world–at one point, he had a net worth of $2 billion. In ten 1-hour long episodes, the series tells the story of his rise and the efforts of the US Drug Enforcement Agency to extradite him. In real life (spoiler alert), Escobar would  die in December 1993 during a shoot-out with Colombian authorities.

El Chapo’s capture has occurred at the same time as Narcos’ rise in popularity. This has fed pop culture’s fascination with drug trafficking, and has also left some room to answer some questions. When, and how, did the epicentre of drug trafficking shift from Columbia to Mexico?

After all, wouldn’t the days of Drug Lords have ended with Pablo Escobar?

The answer is (obviously): no.

In short, after Escobar’s death in 1993, Colombia’s left-wing guerrilla group, FARC, and its right-wing paramilitary militias, AUC, took over the Medellin and Cali cartels’ (another prominent Cartel in Colombia) role of drug producers and movers. The two sides competed for control of drug cultivation and processing which resulted in unseen“levels of drug-fueled violence [in] Colombia” which “spiralled out of control in the late 1990s and early 2000s”. The conflict got so bad that by the early 2000s, the country had become one of the most violent in the world (Bagley, p. 4).

As it had during the Escobar era, the US government supported the Colombia’s fight to end the drug war through Plan Colombia. Plan Colombia provided $8 billion of support to Colombia’s fight against drug violence, and was to a certain degree successful.

However, the initiative gave birth to an unintended new set of problems. In scope, the US-backed “war on drugs” in Colombia was limited to operations in South America. Resources were focused on fighting Colombian drug operations which meant Mexico was left untouched by drug enforcement agencies. Seeing this as an opportunity to bolster operations, Mexican drug-traffickers began expanding their networks, and suddenly, drug operations, along with their violence and criminal activities, migrated north to Mexico (Bagley, p. 5).

Among those who expanded were El Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel which, having existed since the 1960s, now saw an opportunity to be a major player in drug trafficking (Read more: Insight Crime, History).

South America is the world’s leading continent in Cocaine production. Source: The UN World Drug Report, p. xv: https://www.unodc.org/documents/wdr2015/World_Drug_Report_2015.pdf

Central America

For a drug trafficker to survive, he or she must face the inevitability of dealing with law enforcement, because, among other reasons, law enforcement dictates the viability of particular routes. Cartels quickly discovered that transporting drugs on a direct route from South America to Mexico raised the risk of interception. Thus, when one route fails, a new one needs excavation. Too much money is at stake for traffickers to abandon operations: the US government estimates that in 2011, $38 billion worth of cocaine flowed from South to North America (Dudley, p. 91)

An example of cartels using the Central American corridor. Source: NPR

Through time, the “corridor” that is Central America provided a reliable fix. In 2011, An estimated 42 percent of the cocaine (amounting to $16 billion) flowing to North America passed through Central America (ibid.).

Drug smuggling exists in many forms, but among the most popular is through boats at shipping ports along the northern coast of Honduras and the pacific coasts of Nicaragua and El Salvador. These ports are attractive drop-off points for traffickers because of the cover they provide–at shipping ports, traffickers are able to blend in with the heavy volume of fishermen. From there, they are transported by truck and taken further north to Guatemala to continue their journey (p. 80).

But how has the Central American corridor stood the test of time? Couldn’t law enforcement have easily busted the route?

Central American gangs, such as MS-13, act as Transportistas.

Simply put, moving drugs on the ground though Central America gives the cartels a cheap asset that is non-existent in air transportation: Transportistas. As the name suggests, the role of the Transportista is to transport drugs from the South America to Mexico. What makes them attractive is not only their price but their omnipresent quality: Transportistas are present in various facets of society, from local villagers and petty thugs looking to make a quick buck to already-established, multinational gangs (such as MS-13, which I’ve also written about here). They are also, more importantly, present in jail and court systems (Dudley, p. 76).

This might explain how Chapo was able to escape Mexican custody twice. With so many individuals willingly taking bribes (or forcefully through “plata o plomo” deals, in which an individual has the option of accepting a bribe or taking a bullet), it becomes easier to manipulate the system that is trying to get you. In the same light, Mexican traffickers were able to take advantage of unstable Central American countries trying to rebuild in their post-war eras and use them as drug-transporting corridors.

Looking ahead

The extradition process for El Chapo is underway, but with all the legal speed bumps, it’s expected to take at least one year for his extradition to the US to actually happen. In the meantime, precautions are being made to avoid any more embarrassing escapes: the Associated Press reported that Mexican authorities had moved El Chapo between 8 different cells in a maximum security prison since he was caught on January 8.

So, will Chapo’s extradition mean the end of Drug Lords or drug trades? History says no. As with any other business, drug trafficking has adapted with its environment to survive.

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Weapons recovered at El Chapo’s Hideout. Source: @NoticieroHechos

For instance, the Colombian drug Lord of today isn’t the Colombian drug Lord of the Escobar era. Vice News reported in 2014 that drug trafficking in Colombia had dropped the brutal tactics used by Escobar. Instead, narcos operate in a low- profile, resorting to violence when “invisible gang borders” are crossed. This “lower-profile” style of conducting business plays into the favour of cartels, as these smaller networks are harder for law enforcement to track (Bagley, p. 8).

In another case, The Associated Press reported that Mexican cartels have resorted to tapping into oil lines to support their increasingly growing drug operations. The state-run petroleum company, Pemex, estimates that it lost “some 7.5 million barrels worth $1.15 billion” in 2014 to cartels (paragraph 2).

It will be interesting to see what happens to El Chapo in the coming year. There will likely be temptations to compare El Chapo to Escobar (who was “badder?” who was “richer?”) and while there is a playful aspect that exists in the comparisons, it’s important to keep in mind the social, economic, and political ramifications that both figures have had on their respective countries.

One thing that he and Escobar have in common is that neither is a petty criminal: there’s a reason why the US wanted Escobar’s head, and there’s a reason why Mexico spent 6 months chasing Chapo.


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