Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is escorted by soldiers in Mexico City after his arrest. REUTERS/Henry Romero

By Everard Meade

The official story of the capture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán appears to be more fiction than reality.

The video of the dramatic raid — released exclusively to the pro-government Televisa Network and only in a heavily-redacted version — doesn’t match many of the details of the story provided to the public. There are missing bullet holes, gaps in the timeline, conflicting statements about the complaints that triggered the raid, and many other contradictions.

The government also celebrated the capture as a Mexican operation, but it appears that U.S. Special Forces and Marshals were involved, and perhaps even on the scene.

Then there’s the question of justice. Mexican officials have persistently recounted Guzmán’s crimes and claimed that he faces hundreds of years of imprisonment in Mexico, regardless of his pending extradition to the United States. The reality is that he hasn’t been formally charged with any criminal offenses in Mexico since 1993. When Guzmán was re-captured in 2014, he was serving the remainder of his original 20-year sentence, and had yet to face any new charges when he escaped last summer.

There’s widespread support for extradition in Mexico. But, its’s a bitter pill that neither Guzmán nor anyone else will likely face justice for the more than 100,000 murders and 30,000 forced disappearances over the last decade.

Everard Meade, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. Photo courtesy USD

Granted, Guzmán heads a vast criminal conspiracy and bringing individual charges against him is a huge challenge. Al Capone was finally nabbed on tax evasion charges, after all. There’s been some confusion on the U.S. side, as well, largely because the United States has only requested extradition on a fraction of the indictments Guzmán faces here, and many of the others remain sealed.

But, in the Mexican case, there’s a larger problem of credibility and complicity. Serious deficiencies in criminal procedure, abundant evidence of torture and forced confessions, and the complicity of law enforcement in organized crime at all levels has made it nearly impossible to successfully prosecute high-level crime bosses. The vast network of corruption Guzmán has built merely adds to the morass. Every journalist in Mexico knows that it’s far more dangerous to expose a corrupt politician than a drug trafficker.

On previous occasions when the Mexican government has attempted to create a dramatic spectacle of justice — as it did after the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students last year — the case has quickly unraveled and revealed not just abusive law enforcement practices, but serious government involvement in the underlying crimes.

That said, away from the staged dramas of the drug war, there are many people of goodwill in the Mexican government and other institutions who are trying to focus drug policy on harm reduction and a defense of individual rights. These are the people we should support, and their ideas have many echoes here.

Last week, the U.S. Congress lifted a ban on federal funding for needle exchanges, in place for more than two decades. The courageous legislators who bucked entrenched ideological positions deferred to overwhelming evidence of increasing HIV transmission, and the effectiveness of needle exchanges in reducing it.

The job, of course, isn’t done. According to the Centers for Disease Control, opioid overdoses have increased by 200 percent over the last decade, and more Americans died from overdoses last year than traffic accidents. High-profile drug arrests have done little to mitigate this public health crisis.

Nor is it simply a question of refocusing our efforts from supply to demand. The death toll from overdoses correlates directly to the abundance of increasingly cheap and potent opioids, a market in which El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel remains a major player.

Rather than mounting the same supply and demand soapboxes, we need policies that reduce harm and empower individuals.

The bi-partisan ovation which President Obama received last Tuesday night when he mentioned criminal sentencing reform — much of which addresses non-violent drug offenses and addiction — bodes well for a broader reform effort.

Something similar is sprouting in Mexico. On Nov. 4, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that federal regulators had violated the constitutional rights of four activists who were denied recreational marijuana permits.

The court found that government policy violated their right to the “free development of their personalities” as spelled out in the constitution, and placed the burden on the government to show a compelling public interest outweighing that right.

The decision doesn’t set a binding precedent — Mexico operates on a civil law system and the court explicitly rejected its extension to “any reasonable person.” But, the decision did establish the defense of individual rights as the standard by which future disputes over drug policies will be decided.

Previous attempts to decriminalize marijuana, which substituted criminal punishments for mandatory drug treatment, gave individuals some recourse against shakedowns by corrupt cops, but they have also proved ripe for abuse. Witness the mass arrest of homeless people in Tijuana last spring on the pretext of mandatory drug treatment — many were not addicts and few received any actual treatment. More important, decriminalization policies have earned the ire of the United States, which has persistently pressured Mexico to drop them.

The current toll of death and destruction from the “drug war” far surpasses any reasonable understanding of collateral damage. After a decade of epidemic addiction on this side of the border and intense bloodshed on the Mexican side, the test the Mexican Supreme Court established should apply to all of our drug polices — Do they do more harm than good? Is there a compelling public interest that outweighs any infringement of individual rights?

Making these determinations requires transparency and truth telling, the kind of truth telling that comes from careful study, not made-for-television displays or Hollywood publicity stunts.

The truth about El Chapo may be stranger than fiction, but the broader truths of the drug war are as stark and inconvenient as they come.

Everard Meade, Ph.D. is director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego.

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