The Mexican Marines arrested “El Chapo” (Shorty) Guzman, reputed head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, and the DEA has been crowing like a rooster greeting an Alaskan spring dawn after a six-month sunless winter. If the press is to be believed, Guzman certainly is a cold, violent, deadly career criminal who has earned a life-long tenancy in a federal Super-Max prison. But there is much less about his capture than meets the eye. It does not merit the gleeful celebrations of the Drug War bureaucrats.
Getting Shorty (I don’t call it an arrest because this military raid has little, if anything, to do with proper police procedure) fails to give cause for celebration for two reasons. The minor one is its cost. This kind of multi-national military and police operation extending over several days or weeks and involving two cities has to have cost several million dollars to plan and execute. The other large cost, potentially much more serious, was only a probability that happily did not occur. An large-scale armed raid on a man known to surround himself with professional killers was likely to end in a storm of gunfire. To stage one in the middle of a large city whose streets teem with people around the clock was to invite injury or death to multitudes of innocent bystanders. Do we really want scenes like those from the streets of Damascus staged in our cities? By sheer luck, this incipient battle ended bloodlessly – this time.
The major shortcoming of the Get Shorty caper is that it did nothing to further the stated goals of the War on Drugs. One way or another, the Cartels will continue their businesses. One of El Chapo’s underlings will step in, or Sinaloa will split into separate parts each carrying on the trade. The worst outcome would be for warfare to break out again among all the rival groups sensing a weakness in Guzman’s group. That kind of warfare would increase the bloodshed in Mexico and possibly in Chicago. And since wars cost money, the rivals would feel pressure to increase the volume of their sales. The ascendancy of the Cali Cartel to control over Colombia’s cocaine trade after the killing of Pablo Escobar is a good precedent. The Mexican cartels have much deeper and stronger roots than did the Colombian ones. Some of the Mexican gangs have been in continuous operation since the days they were smuggling alcohol across the border in the 1920s.
While the marines and DEA were staging their circus act in Mazatlán, Colorado and Washington were quietly attacking the Cartels in the way that does the most damage: by legalizing the production and sale of marijuana they are working to cut off the flow of money that is both the reason for the Cartels’ existence and the fuel that allows them to function. Legitimizing the product removes the high contraband premium adds to the price of marijuana, probably dropping the price by at least ninety percent, and it also prevents the police agencies from enforcing and protecting the Cartel monopoly. Guzman’s group can in no way compete with honest farmers.
Classical mythology tells of the Hydra, a hideous flesh-eating monster. Hydra was thought to be invincible because when its head was cut off, it immediately grew two more. Heracles solved the problem by ignoring the threatening heads and going straight for its heart, killing the Hydra with a single sword thrust. By going after Guzman, the DEA is merely hacking at the Hydra’s head: legalization, by stemming the life-blood flow of money, is thrusting into the monster’s heart. The time has come to quit flailing around blindly and to start cutting surgically by removing the Prohibition heart of the monster.