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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

Mexico drug lord's fate is focus of election year speculation

The capture or death of Joaquin 'Chapo' Guzman, the No. 1 drug fugitive, could shift the tone of Mexico's presidential campaign before the July 1 vote.

March 12, 2012|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times
  • As Mexico's presidential election approaches, some are wondering whether the government will spring a June surprise by finally nabbing the nation's top drug fugitive, Joaquin Chapo Guzman.
As Mexico's presidential election approaches, some are wondering… (Damian Dovarganes / Associated…)

Reporting from Mexico City — A tantalizing question is spicing up talk shows and opinion columns as Mexican voters prepare to elect a new president: Will the government spring a "June surprise" by finally nabbing Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman?

Guzman, you might recall, is the world's most wanted drug suspect — on the lam since escaping a Mexican federal prison in a laundry cart in 2001. He allegedly sits atop a vast crime network reaching into the United States and across much of the globe, and is ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the world's richest men.

In other words, Guzman would be a sweet trophy for President Felipe Calderon, who could use a big score before voters head to the polls July 1.

Calderon's conservative National Action Party, or PAN, and its presidential candidate, Josefina Vazquez Mota, trail in the polls, even though formal campaigning hasn't begun yet. Far ahead is Enrique Peña Nieto, a former governor who hopes to guide the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, back into power after 12 years on the sidelines.

What does any of this have to do with Guzman, believed holed up in a remote part of northwestern Mexico?

For one, his capture would mark the biggest blow against drug cartels since Calderon declared war on traffickers in late 2006. The crackdown has become a drag on his party as the death toll from the ensuing drug violence has risen to more than 50,000.

For another, analysts say, it would squelch whispers that the government has gone easy on Guzman while attacking his rivals. Many people suspect Guzman steered federal authorities to a former ally, Alfredo Beltran Leyva, who was arrested in 2008, and perhaps to Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel, a Guzman associate slain during an army raid in 2010.

Administration officials deny any deals, of course. But each day that Guzman remains free adds fuel to the conspiracy theories that flower here like jacarandas. Some analysts say Guzman's capture or death could shift the tone of the campaign.

"Bringing down El Chapo would alter Calderon's place in his nation's score books from a chief executive who waged a bloody, unfocused drug war to a leader who eliminated a criminal compared favorably with Osama bin Laden, Butch Cassidy and Al Capone," George W. Grayson, a Mexico scholar at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., wrote in a recent commentary.

A capture could also buoy the Obama administration, which has backed Calderon with security aid and moral support. The U.S. government has offered $5 million for Guzman's arrest.

During a recent visit to Mexico, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said U.S. authorities would chase Guzman as long as necessary.

"It took us 10 years to find Osama bin Laden and we found him, and you know what happened there," Napolitano told reporters. "I'm not suggesting the same thing would happen with Guzman, but I am suggesting that we are persistent when it comes to wrongdoers."

Guzman's storied successes, even as a fugitive, are embarrassing for Calderon's PAN. The former head of the PRI, Humberto Moreira, mocked the president's party last year by noting that Guzman was arrested while the PRI was in control, but escaped soon after the PAN took over.

And although government forces have captured or killed a number of ranking drug suspects, Mexicans remain largely unconvinced as long as the No. 1 fugitive is free. Guzman sightings are reported from time to time, and U.S. agents say they often have had a good idea of his whereabouts. The bigger problem, they say, is mounting a raid that would not end in a bloodbath for Mexican forces.

"Everyone knows where they are, who they are. They know that if they catch him close to the elections, it will help them," drug war expert Edgardo Buscaglia told reporters recently in the violence-ridden city of Veracruz.

The Times reported last year that Guzman's 22-year-old wife, Emma Coronel, traveled to Los Angeles County in July and gave birth to twins in Lancaster in August. U.S. authorities said they knew of her trip but didn't detain Coronel because she is a U.S. citizen and had no pending charges against her.

The idea that authorities could grab Guzman any time, but don't, strikes some experts as far-fetched.

"The implication is that the United States or Mexico or Calderon has been sitting on the information and waiting for the right moment," said Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. "I don't think that's true."

It's also unclear that taking Guzman down would solve the PAN's political troubles.

A capture now might look too convenient, sparking yet more conspiracy-theorizing. (One commentator noted that skeptics would assume Guzman had long been in government hands, but kept on ice until a politically propitious moment.)

And if history is a guide, Guzman's removal could ignite a bloody succession struggle among lieutenants and allied criminal gangs, all violent.

"Catch Chapo — great," Olson said. "But watch out, it could unleash the fury of all these networks and splinter groups."

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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