The capture of a drug cartel boss who embarrassed Mexico’s government has given President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador a rare crime-fighting victory as he prepares to host a major North American summit and gears up to secure his succession.
The arrest of Ovidio Guzman, son of captured kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was a timely reversal of fortune for Lopez Obrador. The president had ordered Ovidio to be freed to avoid mass bloodshed after he was captured previously in the state of Sinaloa in 2019, sparking a violent stand-off with cartel gunmen.
His release angered the armed forces and caused consternation inside the government and the United States, according to U.S. and Mexican officials, feeding criticism of Lopez Obrador’s strategy of avoiding direct clashes with gangs.
But the recapture of Guzman, a leader of a cartel blamed for helping to fuel a surge in U.S. opioid deaths, just as President Joe Biden and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are due to arrive in Mexico for the summit could hardly have come at a better time for Lopez Obrador, analysts and officials said.
“It’s a plus for him domestically, and a plus for him with the Americans,” said Jorge Castaneda, a former Mexican foreign minister and prominent critic of the president.
However, the arrest, one of just a handful of major scalps Lopez Obrador has claimed, is unlikely to herald a major sea change in the battle on organized crime unless the government is more aggressive about going after gangs, analysts said.
Lopez Obrador took office in 2018 vowing to get a grip on gang violence. Instead, the number of homicides rose on his watch, and is now on the verge of surpassing the total recorded in the entire preceding six-year administration.
And while Lopez Obrador is popular, his record on combating crime has consistently been viewed critically by voters.
In a poll by newspaper El Financiero published this week, security again emerged as his biggest weakness, with 52% of respondents saying the government was doing a bad job on it compared with just over a third arguing the opposite.
The president’s overall approval rating has held close to 60% for months, and he is hoping to lend his popularity to help his party’s candidate, due to be chosen this year, secure victory in the 2024 presidential election.
Mexican presidents can only serve a single term.
Lopez Obrador’s attitude to the Sinaloa Cartel has stirred up misgivings, particularly when he decided to greet El Chapo’s mother on a trip to Sinaloa in 2020.
Raul Benitez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said Ovidio’s capture should help quell frustration the military felt at having to give up Ovidio during the botched attempt at nabbing him in 2019.
Mexican security forces were never persuaded by Lopez Obrador’s stated policy of using “hugs not bullets” to combat crime and the successful sting against Guzman showed that a more robust approach was what yielded results, he added.
Now Mexico needs to pursue the Sinaloa gang’s main rival, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, or they would pick up any slack in the market for deadly opioid fentanyl, Benitez said.
John Feeley, a former deputy chief of mission in the U.S. embassy to Mexico, said unless authorities had a comprehensive strategy to dismantle cartels and their front businesses, little progress would be made against fentanyl traffickers.
“Any big dude you take down is always welcome,” he said. “(But) until you have a coordinated take-down of first, second and third tier associates as well as … ‘legitimate’ citizens who collaborate in the money laundering, all you’re really doing is putting on a spectacle for a visiting dignitary.”
Feeley was skeptical that enough pressure would come from Washington to build on Guzman’s capture, arguing that U.S. governments tended to subordinate all other interests to securing the U.S.-Mexico border against illegal immigration.
There were signs of mutual goodwill after the capture.
Mexico’s government said late on Thursday that Biden had decided to land for the summit at a politically contentious new airport and flagship project of Lopez Obrador north of Mexico City which has so far struggled to secure airline traffic.
Mexican officials had privately been skeptical that Biden would agree to touch down there.