The Chapo Show relaunched last week to a massive audience. Joaquín Guzmán, easily the most notorious organized crime boss since Pablo Escobar, made his second prison escape and it was a scene out of a blockbuster thriller. So far the protagonist has allegedly made a small cameo appearance. Regardless whether the appearance was authentic, news channels have rushed to give The Chapo Show a heavy network presence and newspapers have given it plenty of column space.
The Chapo Show sells because Guzmán and, by extension, his organization, the Sinaloa Federation, have become the most recognizable contemporary symbols of the drug trade. Reports, quoting federal agents, former police, and other analysts, have made consistent and persistent claims: the Sinaloa Cartel has a clear majority share of the drug trade and, by supplying the streets, it is responsible for the violence that occurs in the US. Be it in Chicago or the North East, the supply of illicit drugs, along with any gratuitous violence or uptick in heroin use, is readily associated with Guzmán and his crew. The amount of agency ascribed to Guzmán in making the drug trade run is impressive.
The idea that such a large organization has vertical control across all levels of the drug trade, however, is questionable. In my work, I have interviewed dozens of gang members in the drug trade in El Paso, Phoenix, and Chicago and talked to key law enforcement personnel in those cities, as well. As I conducted my research, it became clear that the case of the Flores Twins, who smuggled massive quantities of cocaine and heroin into Chicago, represented an atypical trafficking model. Most bulk drugs are sold to wholesalers, who then break the product down for their street vendors or sell it to other middle men further afield. Most mid-level and low-level dealers have no true idea where their product originates, since it has been handled at least half a dozen times before they receive it. If product origin or organizational affiliation is evoked at all, it is often fabricated to talk up the product or to intimidate a rival.
Essentially, “the cartel” consists of a relatively small number of core individuals who focus on the logistics of the drug trade. They are the ones orchestrating the bulk sales. They are not the ones occupying America’s streets and selling dope to the kids. Although many individuals are involved in the drug trade, most are the equivalent of subcontractors in the licit world. Some of these subcontractors are unaware of the role they are playing and may not be aware that they are doing anything illegal.
Yet, as long as Guzmán remains a fugitive, the public, politicians, and law enforcement groups will remain focused on him, and that is exactly what he wants. It is also what many politicians and law enforcement organizations want. We need to see The Chapo Show for what it is: a smokescreen to divert attention from the problems that underwrite the illicit drug business. And, as long as the public interest remains focused on how to stop these apparently massive drug trafficking organizations, society will not invest in eroding the demand for its products. Going after the organization or its leaders does little to affect the state of affairs on the streets, in part because these cartels are not as massive as the media makes them out to be and, in part because, when any given element fails, there are others in the ready to replace it.
But there are other questions one must ask. Why do both the US and Mexico focus on the Sinaloa Federation? We are told that the Sinaloa Federation moves 80 per cent of the drugs sold in the US. How are these figures calculated? It seems a high percentage when one considers the role of the Zetas and their dominance over the southeastern border between Texas and Mexico. Yet, beyond the Texas Valley, there is virtually no mention of Zeta drugs in the US. Sinaloa’s apparent dominance would suggest that most of the drugs trafficked into the US come through points of entry west of El Paso. Police on the US side of the border propagate this claim of Sinaloa dominance; however, gang members, journalists, and community workers on the Juárez side of the border, as well as the El Paso DEA, in correspondence with me early last year, contradict it.
The Chapo Show keeps us from asking such questions and from questioning our existing tactics. It is a distraction that benefits drug traffickers and drug warriors – those hellbent on keeping the “War on Drugs” alive – equally well. The traffickers are able to expand the notoriety of their brand reputation and establish credibility to their political reach, normally difficult-to-achieve objectives, especially without violence. More importantly, by keeping the focus squarely on Guzmán, the names of other key players avoid mention within the realm of public consciousness which, in turn, lessens likelihood that the public explicitly demands their capture, too.
In turn, the drug warriors can use Guzmán as a powerful symbol, creating the perception that his larger than life persona and reach have currency in the United States. As the Guzmán legend grows, he is demonized exponentially, creating an evil which allows drug warriors to justify their expensive operations. Politicians, in need of political capital for their election campaigns, exploit the same imagery, insisting that drugs are a plague on the streets of America, and it requires harsher penalties and tougher sentences. Of course politicians who don’t have any more elections can win can act in society’s best interest, without worrying about political fallout. That is exactly why President Obama has been able to push reform.
Those who lose are those who have always lost: those who are at the bottom of the drug trade: people who get swept up in the criminal justice system because of possession and addiction, and the young who get swept up in “the game.” By ignoring these individuals, most of whom are extremely vulnerable and need help, society loses. By refusing to work effectively in assisting them, we treat these people as if they are disposable.
We need to turn off The Chapo Show. It’s had its day. It’s time to focus on the people at the bottom of the drug trade. We, as a society, can only win if we can reduce the need for drugs, minimize the negative impacts of those who are on drugs, and reintegrate those who are punished back into society as active, contributing members. In short, we need to not only follow the President’s lead in reforming the justice system, but we also need to focus our attention and our resources to reduce harm. If we continue this “war on drugs,” we will remain at war, but not against drugs or drug traffickers like Chapo Guzmán, but against our own society and, ultimately, ourselves.