Janet Napolitano ruffled feathers by comparing Mexican capo Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to Osama bin Laden, and indeed the two men are not in the same league, either in their power or the threat they posed to US interests.
During a press conference in Mexico City alongside Interior Secretary Alejandro Poire, US Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano boasted of US capacity to conduct extended manhunts, saying, “It took us 10 years to trap Osama Bin Laden; we found him and you know what happened. I don’t think the same thing will happen with Guzman, the only thing I am suggesting is that we are persistent when we are close to evil that harms both countries, yours and ours.”
Initially, the interior secretary transcript mistranslated Napolitano’s comments, replacing “I don’t think the same thing will happen with Guzman,” with “The same thing will happen with Guzman.”
The seemingly aggressive talk from Napolitano fueled worries that the US’s Seal-team 2011 assault on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound could be repeated in Mexico. Given the deep-rooted Mexican resistance to intervention from the US government, largely the product of the Mexican-American War and two smaller-scale invasions during the Mexican Revolution, the prospect of dozens of special forces swooping in to carry out a hit on Mexican soil was highly unsettling to many.
The Mexican government corrected the mistaken translation in short order (though not before it had been reported by scores of media outlets), but even Napolitano’s real words seem out of place. While Guzman and bin Laden share the dubious distinction of being among the individuals most wanted by US law enforcement, their differences are far more important than their similarities.
The most important contrast is that while bin Laden’s reason for being was to carry out attacks on the symbols and citizens of the US (and other western nations), Guzman and his counterparts in Mexico’s underworld have generally avoided attacks on the US. There have been some deviations from this practice, but Mexican drug traffickers typically tread carefully in US territory and in dealing with US officials, as they have for generations.
More fundamentally, unlike bin Laden, Guzman is not challenging the liberal world order, but rather exploiting it. The drug trade is often referred to as a national security threat to the US, but this is an error. The international drug trade has grown geographically more extensive and operationally more sophisticated over the past 30 years, despite billions of dollars spent to rein it in, yet neither US control over its territory nor its ability protect its citizens has greatly suffered as a result.
Because of this basic difference, the US is much more justified in employing aggressive tactics that infringe on another nation’s sovereignty in combating Islamic terrorism, than in doing the same to combat drug traffickers.
Furthermore, bin Laden was much more central to his movement than Guzman is to his industry. Radical Islamic fundamentalism didn’t begin and end with bin Laden, but his charisma and personal devotion to the cause rallied thousands of others to join him. While the academic research on the decapitation of terrorist groups is not clear-cut, the evidence suggests that killing bin Laden is far more likely to limit al-Qaida’s ability to attack the US than killing Guzman would be to limit Mexican gangsters’ ability to traffic drugs.
Indeed, in Guzman’s case, it’s unlikely that killing him alone would radically alter the power even of his Sinaloa Cartel, which is directed by other prestigious figures -- Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada and Juan Jose "El Azul" Esparragoza -- in addition to Guzman. And, more to the point, killing or arresting Guzman would have an even smaller impact on the industry as a whole, as other gangs would inevitably race in to absorb the reduced market share of a weakened Sinaloa Cartel. Put another way, capos, even the most powerful ones, are merely cogs in a much larger machine. If one cog is removed, another can, and inevitably will, replace it. The machine, driven by an insatiable demand for recreational drugs, grinds on with whatever parts are available.
Destroying that machine should never be the guiding objective for policymakers, because it is unobtainable. They should, rather, be focused on making the machine as passive and isolated as possible, which implies a very different set of tactics. Hopefully Napolitano is correct in predicting Guzman’s fall, but such an event would be more of a symbolic than a concrete success.