Putting a drug lord behind bars does not end his reign. The only way to really bring him down is to confiscate his assets. Yet this hasn't happened with Mexico's "El Chapo." Anabel Hernández examines why.
What would you do with $12.7 billion (€11.4 billion)? Where would you hide it? That's what the US and Mexican governments have been asking themselves for the past week, after a court in New York ordered that this sum be confiscated from the Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. The Sinaloa cartel boss was recently sentenced to life in prison.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has claimed this money for Mexico, calling it a matter of "justice," despite the fact that, in the past 18 years of the so-called war against the drug mafia, successive governments have completely failed to confiscate any assets from Guzman and his family.
The journalist Anabel Hernández has reported on drug cartels and corruption in Mexico for over two decades. Death threats forced her to leave Mexico in 2014. She now lives in Europe. Hernández was awarded the Freedom of Speech Award in 2019 for her activism at DW's Global Media Forum in Bonn.
The government of the United States hasn't done any better either. When I called Mariel Colon, an attorney on Guzman's defense team in New York, she informed me that, so far, the US government hasn't confiscated anything, either. "They have not found any properties or material assets registered in the name of Guzman Loera," Mariel Colon told me. "$12 billion dollars is a ridiculous amount. Mr. Guzman doesn't have this amount of money."
Guzman's main defense attorney is the star lawyer Jeffery Lichtman, whose clients also included the mob boss John Gotti. He responded to the sentencing by Judge Brian Cogan with heavy irony. "If there are no assets, then there's nothing to pay," he said. "How long have they been looking for his fortune?" he added. "Decades?"
Even before the sentencing, the White House announced that it intended to use the money confiscated from El Chapo to build a wall between Mexico and the United States.
What could Mexico do with the money? An analysis of scheduled public spending in 2019 indicates that $12.7 billion would enable Lopez Obrador's government to pretty much cover the entire annual budget for the governmental offices that deal with the procurement of justice and internal and national security. Their remit includes the fight against organized crime. They're responsible for investigating, catching and punishing drug bosses like Guzman.
But why have the US and Mexican governments been so far unable to locate even a fraction of Guzman's estimated fortune?
Money trumps freedom
For a serious criminal, true defeat is not a life sentence: It's the loss of his accumulated fortune, said Roberto Scarpinato, an Italian public prosecutor from Palermo. He's been fighting organized crime for over 25 years, and has had considerable success confiscating assets from the Sicilian mafia. From 2008 to 2010 alone, he took $5 billion.
"The mentality of these people is: 'While I'm sitting in prison, my money is working for me outside the prison. I may be in prison, but I've secured my family's future. My name still has power, so I haven't failed,'" Scarpinato said.
In Italy, Scarpinato said, confiscated money is integrated into the national budget and earmarked primarily as compensation for victims of the Mafia. Confiscated real estate can be used for social purposes. Companies that were directly or indirectly owned by the Mafia pass into state ownership.
"In Italy, we start the inquiry into the location of assets at the same time as the investigation into the alleged crimes," Scarpinato said. "As soon as the investigation has been successfully concluded, we arrest the individuals concerned and seize their assets to prevent them from disappearing."
Whenever members of a mafia clan are arrested, another investigation is immediately launched to locate "deeper," hidden assets. This looks into all the relatives of the person concerned: wives, children, brothers, cousins and other trusted individuals, such as friends, lovers, etc.
In Italy, falsely declaring assets carries a heavy penalty. As soon as investigators uncover indications that a suspected accomplice has considerable unexplained wealth, a fresh investigation is launched. "If a piece of real estate doesn't show up on a tax return and the individual is unable to present any evidence of legal ownership, the building is confiscated," Scarpinato said.
In the same week that Guzman was sentenced, Scarpinato's office carried out a joint operation with the US government in Palermo and New York to arrest members of the Inzerillo and Gambina clans of the Cosa Nostra. "The worst thing is when they confiscate your assets," a member of the Inzerillo clan was recorded as saying during a surveillance operation.
Making drugs fashionable
Guzman's billions are apparently untraceable. In July, his daughter, Alejandrina Gisselle Guzman Salazar, launched her own fashion brand, El Chapo 701. The name is a reference to the position that Forbes magazine assigned to her father on the list of the world's richest men. In 2012, Guzman Salazar was arrested by US authorities for trying to enter the country with false documents. She spent two months in prison before being deported to Mexico.
Her fashion company has a public website and a Facebook presence. The company is based in Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco. Its costly product range includes a leather belt embroidered with silver thread, priced at $770 dollars, and a silver-embroidered billfold ($180 dollars). It also offers women's T-shirts emblazoned with the image of El Chapo. Some products have already sold out.
"Born in the mountains," the advertisement goes. "A modest orange-seller with big aims and great ambition. Proud of his origins, a friend to all, the willing, attentive, ever-present leader of his people, with strong aspirations and ideals. Courageous, charismatic, and honorable ..."
"As with every other criminal group, the true power of El Chapo's Sinaloa cartel is the economic power that enables them to run their businesses illegally," the mafia hunter Scarpinato said. "With this, they can corrupt authorities and finance their drug wars. It's an impersonal power that extends beyond the figure of the drug boss. Prosecuting individuals is not enough if you don't break their economic power as well."