Mexico’s government scored a huge victory with the capture of the country’s most wanted drug lord but the cartels will remain a powerful force and could unleash a fresh wave of violence as they fight for control of his turf.
In a lightning raid early on Saturday, Mexican marines arrested Joaquin Guzman, whose dominance of the drugs trade and ability to elude the law since escaping from prison in 2001 had lent him almost mythical status.
Immortalised in songs and revered by many in his home state of Sinaloa, Guzman leaves behind a criminal organization that employs thousands and flourished even as it fought brutal turf wars with rival cartels.
Experts say his Sinaloa Cartel should have no trouble in continuing without him.
''Chapo was the strategy guy, he was the CEO, but he still has his board of directors who are running things,’’ said drug war expert and retired US Air Force captain Sylvia Longmire.
‘‘Day-to-day on the ground, I don’t think there is even going to be a hiccup in the drug flow,’’ she added.
Nevertheless, Guzman’s imprisonment could encourage rivals to try to muscle in on the turf his business empire has held for years from its base in northwestern Mexico.
For now it is a personal triumph for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office in December 2012 pledging to cut spiraling violence in Latin America’s second biggest economy.
Doubts about his strategy on organised crime have grown as the violence continued and his government made a risky alliance with vigilante groups in a confrontation with a drug gang in the state of Michoacan.The arrest of Guzman offers a strong riposte to the president’s critics.
Pena Nieto’s predecessor Felipe Calderon staked his reputation on bringing the gangs to heel, but despite capturing or killing many capos, violence leapt during his six year term.
No-one was a more telling reminder of the Calderon government’s shortcomings than Guzman. After escaping from prison in 2001, the drug lord built up an empire and made his way onto the Forbes list of billionaires.
THRIVING DRUGS MARKET
Pena Nieto has taken a more low key approach to fighting organized crime than Calderon, and the cross-border intelligence operation that led to Guzman’s capture is a boost for Mexican-U.S. cooperation on organized crime.
Initially focusing on the Zetas, a brutal cartel that has been behind many of the most shocking atrocities of the last few years, Pena Nieto’s government put the group on the back foot by capturing the gang’s boss Miguel Angel Trevino last July.
Murders fell by more than 16 per cent during his first full year in the job, but he had hoped for a greater decline and serious problems remain.
Homicides are still well above the levels recorded when Calderon took power, and extortion and kidnapping rose last year, according to government figures.
The removal of Guzman from the scene does not mean there is any less for the cartels to play for.Trafficking remains a highly lucrative business: according to US State Department figures, the gangs send between $19-29 billion each year from the United States to Mexico.
In spite of steps to decriminalise marijuana usage in parts of the United States, the drug is still smuggled in vast quantities, and the market for harder narcotics is thriving.
Between 2008 and 2012, the amount of heroin seized at the US southwest border increased by 232 per cent, according to National Seizure System (NSS) data.
And though cocaine seizures are down, that has been offset by higher consumption in Mexico and Europe, said Alberto Islas of consultancy Risk Evaluation.
Meanwhile, demand for Mexican methamphetamine is still enjoying ‘‘double digit’’ growth annually, Islas added.