On Saturday, the world's most wanted drug lord, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, was captured in a high-profile arrest in the Mexican city of Mazatlán, ending a 13-year search since he last escaped from prison, in a laundry basket. Of course, credit must be given to the Mexican and U.S. forces involved in this capture. Strengthening rule of law and bringing the leader of the most powerful drug cartel to justice is undoubtedly significant.
But how much will this arrest really accomplish? The capture of one leader, from one cartel, will not decrease drug use or drug availability in the world's biggest drug consumer, the United States. In late 2011, the US Department of Homeland Security issued a memo on Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTO) Adaptability to Smuggle Drugs across SWB after Losing Key Personnel, which concluded that "there is no perceptible pattern that correlates either a decrease or increase in drug seizures due to the removal of key DTO personnel." 40 years of the war on drugs has not led to a decrease in drug consumption or supply on a global scale, yet it has led to the proliferation of drug cartels and crime associated with the underground market.
It is also a mistake to believe that the capture of Guzmán will necessarily lead to a decrease in violence. On the contrary, experience indicates that it might result in an increase in violence in the short-term, as infighting occurs within a cartel to assume the position of a fallen kingpin, or other cartels try to increase their presence in the Sinaloa cartel's territory.
Guzmán's arrest will not dismantle the criminal networks involved in drug trafficking. The Sinaloa cartel is one cartel of many and it is unlikely to be dependent on Guzmán for its longevity. High profile captures like this go back many decades – think of Pablo Escobar or Guzmán's own mentor, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, known as "The Godfather" in drug cartel circles – but these never fundamentally alter the situation. As long as there is an illicit market for drugs, there will be violent cartels present to supply it. Ultimately, we need to look for ways to get to the heart of tackling organized crime, with initiatives such as legal regulation, being spearheaded by Uruguay, Washington and Colorado.
In recent years, debate and political will for an overhaul in drug policy has gained unprecedented momentum throughout the U.S., Latin America and elsewhere. In 2011, Kofi Annan, Paul Volcker and Richard Branson joined former Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Cesar Gaviria of Colombia and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and other distinguished members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in saying the time had come to "break the taboo"on exploring alternatives to the failed war on drugs and to "encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs," especially marijuana. More recently, Presidents Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia and Otto Pérez Molina in Guatemala have joined these calls for reform. In May, the Organization of American States produced a report, commissioned by heads of state of the region, that included marijuana legalization as a likely policy alternative for the coming years.
Eighty years after the end of alcohol Prohibition, we no longer have kingpins like Al Capone or Chapo Guzmán running the booze market and eluding capture for decades. As we did with alcohol, we need to learn from the failures of modern-day prohibition, put all options on the table, and try new approaches that depart from the repressive, militarized and punitive methods of the past. Though fighting organized crime is an important part of any comprehensive security strategy, without reducing the illicit market and strengthening the country's institutions, it will not signify an improvement in the safety of Mexico's – and the world's – citizens.
Hannah Hetzer is policy manager of the Americas at the Drug Policy Alliance.
This piece originally appeared on USA TODAY: http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2014/02/26/el-chapo-drug-lord-mexico-capture-column/5815767/