“This American system of ours,” shouted the famed gangster Al Capone in a 1930 interview. “Call it Capitalism, call it what you like – gives to each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it.”
Since those untouchable days, Chicago officials have awarded “Public Enemy No 1” status to only one other person: cartel billionaire Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known – now to the world over – as “El Chapo”.
Nearly seven weeks ago, of course, El Chapo was captured by US and Mexican authorities after 13 years on the lam. Having achieved a cultural stature akin to that of a Bond villain, his capture naturally got all the limelight – while his US backers went more or less unmentioned.
But nearly seven weeks before an overnight capture at a beach resort, the Mexican newspaper El Universal reported how US agencies had armed and financed El Chapo’s Sinaloa criminal empire for at least 12 years. That link has been substantiated by DEA and Justice Department court testimonies, and even US agents confirmed the financing had been approved by high-ranking officials and federal prosecutors. But the American media barely reported how entrenched the American government has become in the Mexican drug trade.
Instead, we got photos of agents leading a shackled Guzman, his head bowed by one of the marines’ gloved hands gripping his neck, toward a US Blackhawk helicopter that would shuttle him off to a high-security prison.
“The choice of news organizations to not make the connection reflects a choice [of] what media would like for us to remember and would like for us to forget,” said Crystal Vance Guerra, a Latin American studies scholar at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She asked: Why don’t we hold these agents and agencies to the same judgment as organized crime?
As we wait for the biggest gangster trial in years, why, indeed, aren’t we putting American intelligence and drug agencies on trial for financing a drug war?
The latest instalment of the “war on drugs” has killed 100,000 people since its official declaration by Mexican President Filipe Calderon and US President George W Bush in 2006. During this period, the US-El Chapo partnership was reportedly never closer: under the deal, Washington allowed El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel to carry on business as usual while top Sinaola members, for their part, provided information on their rivals. DEA agents met with their informants more than 50 times, El Universal reported, as the agents offered their whisperers immunity.
American patronage goes well beyond stoking the largest and most powerful of the Mexican cartels (Sinaloa), as well as the most heinous (Golfo and Los Zetas). The US also openly armed and financed even bigger players in this game – Mexico’s state and security forces. Just as the US-El Chapo relationship was at its closest, the Bush administration signed into law the Merida Initiative, a huge militarization package to Mexico under the “war on drugs” Between 2008 and 2012, President Obama increased security aid under the plan – for helicopters, armored vehicles, surveillance equipment and police training programs – totalling $1.9bn.
As US authorities surely knew by this time, appearances were deceiving on Mexico’s counter-narcotics battlefield, awash with stockpiles of American guns and money. Drug arrests of cartel associates amounted to less than 2% of over 50,000 arrests made in the first four years of the Bush-Calderon partnership. As unflagging Mexican journalist Anabel Hernandez showed in her 2013 book, Narcoland, Mexico’s government wasn’t fighting to stop a drug trade industry – it were fighting for what the industry had to offer. Shattering popular misconceptions about the drug wars, Hernandez concluded:
[T]he biggest danger is not in fact the drug cartels, but rather the government and business officials that work for them and fear exposure.
The US played a leading role in creating the cartel underground in the first place. Joint US-Mexican military forces carried out brutal scorched-earth incursions in Mexico as early as 1976, ostensibly targeting small, rural poppy and marijuana farmers but actually destroying mostly poor communities caught in the middle. This enforcement-based approach hardened farmers into reactionary elements that relocated to major cities and eventually formed the federated Sinaloa-led cartels.
The American-made monster modeled itself off its creator. Today, more and more drug cartel-tycoons are investing in “legitimate” business enterprises expanded by US-based free trade. In Mexico alone, free trade agreements mandated a flood of US agribusiness imports that displaced 2.3m jobs in the agricultural sector; the average wage dropped severely while the commercial sector and the informal economy grew exponentially.
While actors both small-time (cartel) and big-time (government and corporate) claim to “make the most” of the American dream, those who end up suffering the most are the poor, women and undocumented migrants in the Mexico, Central America and the US. The amalgamation of the criminal ring that enriched El Chapo with US business interests therefore shows capitalism at its worst: a race for wealth free of moral or ethical considerations.
Officially, El Chapo’s judgments are currently underway in Chicago, because the authorities there believe they have the strongest case to extradite the former public enemy for trial. The government of Mexico, however, will not consider extradition to the US without first trying El Chapo in Mexican courts.
But when the time comes, shouldn’t El Chapo’s US backers – the high-ranking US officials responsible for inciting and directing cartel violence – face prosecution, too?
We have long glamorized the lives of high-profile criminals, in everything from civil rallies to popular TV shows to entire musical genres. Cartels are the public demon so many of us love to hate. But a public focus on them essentially deflects attention from the way in which other players – like the US government – are not only complicit, but even run the show.
As the filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro Gómez once observed, “You can have a main character be the hero, but almost invariably the star is going to be the villain.” He could easily have been talking about the larger-than-life media depictions of Al Capone in the 1930s. Or the media frenzy around El Chapo Guzman.