Hunting Mexico’s Kingpins Won’t Stop the Flow of Migrants or Drugs to the U.S.

In 2011, the United States ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual, became the first American ambassador forced to resign. A series of cables sent by Mr. Pascual to Washington, and published by WikiLeaks, revealed that when the American authorities detected the location of a high-value target, they were made to choose between several unpalatable alternatives: Notify the Mexican Army, which might tip off the target and was risk-averse; notify the federal police, which was essentially paralyzed; or notify the United States-trained Navy, which was effective but exceedingly violent.

This conundrum was often resolved by embedding American agents in the teams going after kingpins, and sharing intelligence only with Mexican forces highly vetted by the Americans beforehand.

One possible explanation for the humiliating defeat suffered by the Mexican military and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador last week in Culiacán, Sinaloa, where government forces caught and then released a major drug lord, may lie in these precedents. There is no proof that the American authorities located Ovidio Guzmán López, known as “little Chapo” or “Chapito,” but if so, it would follow a pattern.

His father, the drug lord known as El Chapo, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, was captured twice thanks to Drug Enforcement Administration intelligence. As were other high-value targets like Edgar Valdez-Villareal, known as “La Barbie,” arrested in 2010, and Arturo Beltrán Leyva, killed in 2009.

These factors may well have contributed to an improvised, sloppy, weak and ultimately catastrophic raid meant to nab El Chapo’s son, whose extradition to the United States had been requested by Washington.

After hundreds of Sinaloa cartel gunmen, or “sicarios,” closed off the city, attacked key sites and threatened to kill numerous hostages, Mr. López Obrador had no choice but to free Mr. Guzmán López. The press and social media in Mexico are rife with reports of the army’s disgust with Mr. López Obrador’s decision to let Mr. Guzmán López go. But why go after him in the first place?

A possible theory could be that Mr. Guzmán López was located by the D.E.A., and their Mexican counterparts were reluctant to detain him. Mr. López Obrador stated months ago that he had abandoned the widely criticized United States-backed “kingpin strategy” of focusing on drug lords: 12 years of that strategy had only brought more violence and failed to curtail the size, power and ferocity of the cartels.

The battle of Culiacán illustrates that the Sinaloa cartel is no weaker today than before the war on drugs began. Perhaps the Mexican authorities who received the American tip-off understood that if they didn’t nab Mr. Guzmán López, the Americans would out them as complicit — and so opted to proceed halfheartedly and disastrously. With the revised North American trade pact, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, stuck in Congress, Mr. López Obrador’s may have felt coerced to act.

Normally, when the authorities go after high-value targets, they do so with overwhelming force. But just 35 troops were deployed to arrest Mr. Guzmán López. Mexican forces were outmatched and quickly overtaken. The city was not sealed off by the government forces and there were no American Black Hawks to back them up. Only the Guzmán forces succeeded in bringing the city to a violent halt.

It’s no wonder the Sinaloa cartel outnumbered federal forces last Friday in Culiacán. The Mexican military and the new National Guard may well have been too busy hunting Central American migrants along the border between the United States and Mexico. More than 20,000 troops have been deployed to the country’s borders to stem the flow of migrants since this summer. At any given time, the total number of active troops oscillates between 50,000 to 60,000. Nearly half the force available to the government has been channeled to migration-policing duties.

Mr. López Obrador has not clearly outlined what to do with his predecessors’ drug wars, which have claimed more than 250,000 Mexican lives since 2007, and left more than 40,000 missing. During the campaign he called for an end to the drug war, and said he would send the military back to the barracks. As president-elect, he vowed to create a National Guard — made up mostly of former army, navy and federal police troops, newly trained and better paid — and pledged to legalize some drugs. Then he declared that the legalization of marijuana was not on the agenda, to his supporters’ dismay. He disowned the “kingpin strategy,” only to pursue it with El Chapo’s sons.

As a result of this erratic approach, violence has grown in Mexico since Mr. López Obrador took office last December, reaching the highest recorded totals in Mexican history. Days before the battle of Culiacán, 14 policemen were massacred in the town of Aguililla, in the state of Michoacán, and 15 people were killed by the army in Tepochica, in the state of Guerrero. Mexico City has seen growing levels of crime, from holdups in Louis Vuitton shops to shootouts in poorer neighborhoods. The government has lost control of the situation.

Mr. López Obrador had set a reasonable course until Culiacán. The war on drugs was no longer front and center on the Mexican agenda while American involvement had diminished. He is right to focus on reducing poverty and inequality, raising salaries and cash transfers, and encouraging firms to hire the young unemployed no longer in school, though Mexicans may not feel any relief in the short term.

He should continue on this course, ignore the Americans and look the other way when drug shipments flow to the United States. What is the logic of sending the army to burn marijuana fields in Sinaloa if cannabis is legal for recreational use in California? Mr. López Obrador should clearly advise the D.E.A. and President Trump that the kingpin strategy has been discarded, that embedded American agents will no longer be allowed and that only he will decide if and when drug lords like El Chapo’s sons will be persecuted.

He should never find himself again in a situation where the only way out is the humiliating release of criminals and negotiating with terrorists.

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