The arrest of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the brutal leader of the Sinaloa Mexican cartel, is unlikely to put a dent in drug trafficking — and may even fuel more violence as power struggles erupt — experts say.
Mexican Marines stormed a condominium in the resort city of Mazatlan on Saturday and arrested Guzman, whose elusiveness after a 2001 escape from prison and $5 million bounty on his head elevated him to folklore status.
Guzman built an empire while on the lam and even made Forbes list of billionaires. His success was celebrated with a melodic folk song. In recent years, he eluded authorities by scurrying to safety in a warren of underground tunnels.
“When most of America thinks of organized crime, they naturally think of guys like John Gotti, Sammy ‘the Bull’ Gravano, even guys like Al Capone. But the reality of the situation is Chapo Guzman made those guys look like absolute Boy Scouts,” Michael Braun, former chief of operations for the DEA told NBC News.
Indeed, under Guzman's reign, some tens of thousand of people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico.
Experts say Guzman had a hand not only in drug trafficking but also the smuggling of guns and people across the border.
But Gregory D. Lee, a retired supervisory special agent for the DEA and now criminal justice consultant based in Pebble Beach, Calif., told NBC News that Guzman’s arrest will have “no impact whatsoever” on the flow of drugs from Mexico to the United States.
“As long as there’s a demand for drugs, people like El Chapo and his cohorts are going to continue to fill that demand,” Lee said.
According to the State Department, Mexican drug gangs send between $19 billion and $29 billion worth of drugs each year into the United States.
That includes marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine and, increasingly, heroin. The amount of heroin seized at the Southwest border grew 232 percent — 559 kilograms to 1,855 kilograms — between 2008 to 2012, according to U.S. National Seizure System data.
Guzman's capture, however, is not without repercussions. Opportunistic rival gangs may try to take over his grip on the drug trade flowing from northwestern Mexico into the States.
And areas where deals were struck between his cartel and local drug gangs, which have helped bring down murder rates in cities such as Ciudad Juarez, could see a rise in violence, Ioan Grillo, author of “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency,” told Bloomberg.
Guillermo Valdes, former chief of the Mexican intelligence agency told Bloomberg news service that a top lieutenant, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, is the likely successor to Guzman as leader of the Sinoloa Cartel.
“El Mayo has been leading the Sinaloa Cartel alongside El Chapo for 25 years,” Valdes told the news service. “He’s very intelligent.”
Zambada's first order of business could be to find out who is responsible for leaking the information that led to his boss' arrest, Lee said.
“Was it intelligence? A rival gang? If it’s perceived that a rival gang is responsible there could some issues, and we really could see an upswing in violence,” Lee said.
As for Guzman, the prosecutorial tug-o-war is just beginning. He s likely to face a host of charges in Mexico related to his role as Sinaloa boss and in the yearslong violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 2006.
And grand juries in at least seven U.S. federal district courts, including Chicago, San Diego, New York and Texas, already have handed up indictments for Guzman on a variety of charges, ranging from smuggling cocaine and heroin into the United States to participating in an ongoing criminal enterprise involving murder and racketeering.
Federal officials in Chicago were among the first to say they wanted Guzman tried in their jurisdiction. On Sunday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Tiscione in Brooklyn, N.Y. became the second.