White paper

El Chapo arrest, the cartels, and America's opioid addiction

On Feb. 12, 2019, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the former head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, was found guilty on all ten charges against him—charges that included narcotics trafficking, weapons violations, bribery, corruption, and conspiracy to commit murder.

For the U.S. Justice Department, El Chapo’s capture and prosecution is a hard-fought victory against one of the world’s most notorious criminals. But according to experts on the front lines of the drug wars, putting El Chapo behind bars will do nothing to stem the flow of illegal narcotics into the U.S., and will have no impact whatsoever on the Sinaloa cartel’s ability to operate.

“Putting El Chapo behind bars will in no way hamper the Sinaloa cartel’s activities,” says Peter Vincent, former acting director of International Affairs for the Department of Homeland Security and principal legal advisor for Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Obama administration.

America has been waging the so-called “war on drugs” for more than fifty years, and has spent more than $ 1 trillion on the fight. The “economic burden” of the opioid crisis in the United States is $78.5 billion per year in additional healthcare costs, lost productivity, addiction treatment, criminal justice involvement, and a cascade of other factors. But the hidden costs—the negative impact on families, communities, and the U.S.’s reputation around the world—are arguably much greater.

The real question shouldn’t be how to stop the flow of drugs, but instead ask “why” the opioid epidemic has become a uniquely American problem.

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