The tug-of-war over drug lord Joaquin 'Shorty' Guzman following his recent capture by Mexican authorities could strain economic and political ties between Mexico and the United States.
One of 10 children born into grinding rural poverty in the North Western Pacific coastal State of Sinaloa, his father was involved in the narcotics trade which almost inevitably became Joaquin Guzman's legacy and fate. Had destiny been a notch different, and with young Joaquin's brains wedded with initiative and enterprise, he could have enjoyed an index-linked pension from a fortune 500 company.
Instead, his illicit empire of cocaine, heroin, crystal meth and marijuana distribution to craving, addicted North American and European markets, which got him on to Forbes Magazine's richest and most powerful lists, also secured him top spot on the most wanted lists in Mexico and the United States.
Recaptured on February 22 in a fourth floor condo in the resort of Mazatlan, Sinaloa, this time Joaquin Guzman Loera wasn't able to duck into one of his infamous escape route tunnels, although paradoxically much of Almoloya de Juarez maximum security prison in the state of Mexico, where he's currently languishing, is subterranean.
Now a grim tug-of-war over Guzman is underway. Although Mexico and the United States combined intelligence and pooled logistics to nab the drug lord, they aren't yet inclined to share in the spoils of their victory. Both want him, but only one can have him in the immediate future. Undeterred, the US has applied for his extradition.
Beginning of the end
For Guzman, this scenario is the beginning of the end. A man who's spent all of his formative years working in organized crime, can provide an encyclopedic treasure trove of information, which is both vital and crucial for how narcotics cartels can be confronted, defeated and dismantled in the future.
Professor Raul Benitez Manaut, a researcher at CISEN - the North American Studies Department of UNAM, Mexico's National Autonomous University - says it's highly unlikely "Chapo" ("Shorty") will ever be granted liberty and enjoy freedom again. But he might be able to improve his lot behind bars by astutely cooperating to a certain extent. "Probably in the beginning he cannot talk a lot. But in the coming months, he'll start to talk because he'll see the reality of life imprisonment, so he'll want and ask for better conditions in jail. The issue is in what jail. Many people say he'll stay one or two years in Mexico and then Mexican authorities put him in the hands of the US. In both cases, the conditions depend on whether he reveals many things or not," he told DW.
Guzman bribed his way out of a Mexican maximum security prison called Puente Grande (Big Gate) in the western state of Jalisco on Jan. 19, 2001, only just before he was due to be extradited to the US. Although a repeat of that type of blunder constitutes a minuscule risk, it's still present while Guzman is here.
Professor Jorge Chabat, a researcher in the International Studies Department at CIDE - the Center for Research, Technology and Economics in Mexico City - says that Mexican authorities are under a lot of pressure.
Buying his way out?
"At this point, he knows that he'll be in jail probably for many years or the rest of his life. He'll try to protect his friends who are still in the Sinaloa cartel, but maybe he can give some information about some politicians in exchange for some better treatment and maybe some reduction of the sentence. Usually the governments of PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party - the ed.) have been very reluctant to extradite these people."
"But on the other hand, if you keep him in Mexico, obviously they will be very careful to make sure that he doesn't escape again, but the risk is still there. If he did it once, he can do it twice. Basically because he has the money to buy anybody. And if Chapo Guzman escapes again from a maximum security prison, the political effect will be devastating for the Mexican government," he told DW.
Manuel Camacho Solis, a former mayor of Mexico City and former foreign minister, is a senator for the Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD) and says that Guzman must primarily be dealt with by the Mexican justice system. "Put it this way: I think it would be better to have all the information from Chapo and less years in jail, than to have him for five or 10 years more in jail without the information."
"In relation to extradition, I don't think the Mexican government is going to accept that right now. The image of the president would fall to earth. This has been a big accomplishment of the government. Once all of the information is got and he's judged in Mexico, if he can also be sent to the United States, that is going to be an open question. And I would not dismiss that. But for this to happen the process would probably take several years," he told DW.
The question about Guzman's incarceration hinges on the confidence of his captors, says Chabat. "If you are not sure about your abilities to keep him in prison, keeping him far from his organization, the reasonable choice would be to extradite him. But there could be a political effect because you're admitting openly that the situation is very weak, and you are not able to keep him in jail safely."
The information Guzman has can cut both ways. It involves criminal but also political data, says Chabat. "Chapo Guzman also has a lot of information about political protection in Mexico. So if he reveals that here, the government has some control of that in order to minimize the damage that this information could cause to the Mexican system. But if Guzman is in the United States, especially in open court, he can name some names and that can't be controlled. And I don't know if the Mexican government would be happy with that."
Manuel Camacho Solis explains that the political element must be unraveled and examined because Chapo's power base existed, at least in part, hand in glove with it. "Not only is there protection of local police, but alliances with important political figures."
Unlike in the past, when a major drug cartel leader was brought in, there hasn't so far been a violent power struggle within Sinaloa or attacks from other organizations. "We haven't seen any signs of increasing violence, so that confirms this organization is still strong enough to resist attacks from other cartels which are very weakened. So even if they want to do that, they don't have the ability," says Chabat.
Raul Benitiez says there are two possibilities for leadership transferal in the immediate future. "There are two leaders within the Sinaloa cartel - Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and Juan Jose "El Azul" Esparagoza, who have control of the cartel. If this is true, there will be a smooth transition without problems. But on the other hand, Chapo has many sons and daughters. And some sons are talking about that they want the cartel. They have money but no one knows if they have people in the militant parts of the cartel. So this is a question, whether the sons of Chapo will fight for the cartel or they accept the leadership of Zambada."
The Sinaloa drug cartel will continue to exist in the ongoing future minus Guzman simply because it caters to the world of supply and demand. US narcotics consumers pay big money to snort, inject, swallow or inhale and the border area shared with Mexico remains the largest transit route of its kind in the world.
"I don't think it'll change many things in terms of the flow and traffic of drugs, basically because there's a big demand for them in the United States and Europe. Maybe at some point traffickers will move to other territories, but that won't happen soon," says Chabat.