Mexico's President Felipe Calderon (L) checks his watch as he chats with U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte (R) at the luncheon at the Washington Conference on the Americas at the State Department in Washington, May 11, 2011.
Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
By Dave Graham/Reuters
With time running out to win a drugs war that has cost nearly 40,000 lives, only the scalp of Mexico's biggest kingpin can give President Felipe Calderon the symbolic victory his party desperately needs.
Mexico's next presidential election is just 14 months away, and the conservative National Action Party (PAN) is now well behind its main rival in polls, battered by the violence unleashed by Calderon's grinding campaign against the cartels.
Catching Mexico's most powerful drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman would be a "godsend" to the PAN, which needs to turn around public opinion before the July 2012 vote, said George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
"It would be a real coup for Calderon, much like the Osama bin Laden takedown was for Obama," Grayson said.
After bin Laden's death, Guzman hit the top of some "most wanted" lists, giving extra prominence to a man who has acquired semi-mythical status in Mexico since he escaped from a maximum security prison in 2001 eight years after his capture.
Although the government has killed or captured some other drug lords, none have the status of "El Chapo" ("Shorty"), who is a household name and has been a permanent thorn in Calderon's side since the president launched his crackdown on cartels on taking office in late 2006.
While the conflict caused constant headaches for Calderon and strained ties with Washington, Guzman was busy extending the reach of his Sinaloa cartel as far afield as China, putting him on Forbes magazine's list of the world's richest people.
With the election looming, there are signs that Calderon's administration is increasingly determined to close the net around Guzman.
It arrested what it said were two senior figures in his Sinaloa cartel within four days last week.
Attorney General Marisela Morales said after bin Laden's death that catching Guzman was one of the government's top priorities. Calderon himself told magazine Quien last week he wants to catch Guzman before leaving office.
The government's failure to bring in Guzman undermines its assurances it is winning the conflict, which have taken on an increasingly hollow ring during the past month with the discovery of the biggest mass graves of the conflict in northern Mexico.
Public anger has spilled over into protests, prompting one of the biggest marches for peace in years on May 8, when thousands descended on Mexico City's Zocalo central square.
Calderon cannot run for a second term, and surveys show potential PAN candidates polling less than half the votes that would go to the current front-runner of the main opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Enrique Pena Nieto.
In recent months, security issues have overtaken the economy as Mexico's biggest perceived problem, according to pollster Mitofsky.
Since the start of 2011, the Mexican central bank's monthly poll of analysts has named security problems as the biggest risk for the economy, with nearly one in four flagging this. In late 2008, as little as one percent took that view.
The war has also hit Calderon's personal approval ratings. Mitofsky said they are now below 50 percent for the first time -- down from nearly 70 percent two years ago.
Opinion polls in the United States offer a hint of what Guzman's capture might do for Calderon: following bin Laden's killing, President Barack Obama's ratings leapt 11 points.
Locking up Guzman, who ranked no. 2 behind bin Laden on the latest Forbes list of most-wanted international fugitives, would also turn the tables on the PAN's rivals.
Last month, PRI chairman Humberto Moreira mocked Calderon over his failure to catch Guzman, an emblematic outlaw figure feted in brassy narco corridos, or drug ballads, and who inspired New York rapper Tony Yayo's recent album "El Chapo".
"When the PRI was in power, El Chapo was in prison. Now that PAN's in power, he's on the street," Moreira said.
However, capturing a man who has spent years in hiding and is said to have an army of bodyguards is unlikely to be easy.
"El Chapo benefits from an unparalleled corruption network, as well the loyalty of the majority of people in the Sinaloan and Durango mountain regions," drug war expert and Guzman biographer Malcolm Beith told Reuters.
Any interruption to revenues generated by Guzman's Sinaloa cartel, the strongest in Mexico, might also be an unwelcome turn for many businesses, said Jose Luis Pineyro, a security expert at Mexico's Autonomous Metropolitan University.
"El Chapo doesn't keep his money under the bed," he said. "He's important both to the Sinaloan economy and the national economy, at least in some areas. It would be harder to get him than it was in the case of bin Laden."
Even if Guzman is apprehended, it would not put an end to the negative headlines in Mexico, said his biographer Beith.
"What I do predict is that were El Chapo to be caught or killed, we would see more bloodshed and massive acts of violence, both in retaliation and as a result of the fracturing of his organization without his symbolic leadership," he said.
It would, however, be a huge victory for Calderon on the one issue that has dominated his presidency.
Michael Braun of security consultancy Spectre Group International, former chief of global operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), says he is sure that Guzman's time is almost up.
"They will absolutely nail him in the not-too-distant future. I know personally that Mexican authorities have been so close on a number of occasions. I'm surprised they didn't have him 6-8 months ago," he said. "They were a hair away."