Within moments of the jury announcing the guilty verdict of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in the snow-laden court in Brooklyn, word of the result was rippling across Mexico, from the valleys sprinkled with opium poppies to the sprawling mountain capital. People gathered at stalls and watched on televisions as U.S. attorney Richard Donoghue called it a victory that had “pulled back the curtain on international drug dealing.” But there were no cheers, and the reactions were somewhat muted considering it was the conviction of Mexico’s most infamous criminal in recent history.
Having reported from Mexico since Guzman’s first escape from prison in 2001, I also felt a certain numbness to the news, a sense that all the noise meant little, that nothing would change. In the ensuing hours, I talked to some of those I had met covering the violence over the years, who had been touched by the smuggling and murder, and they described their mixed reactions to the conviction.
Mirna Nereyda Medina, a teacher from Los Mochis, Sinaloa, where Guzman was finally captured in 2016, had her son abducted by gunmen and searched for years until she found his body in a mass grave in 2017. She saw the news of the verdict on her cellphone as she landed in Mexico City on a trip to pressure the Mexican government to find traces of the other 40,000 people who have disappeared.
“God forgive him for poisoning the minds of our children,” she says of Guzman, speaking to me by phone while she was still sitting on the plane. “God forgive him for the suffering he has caused. He will die in prison and even death won’t repair the harm he has done. But God have mercy on him.”
Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel was key in escalating the violence in Mexico and transforming the conflict from gang fights to something that has often resembled an actual war. In the last decade there have been more than 200,000 murders here, most believed to be at the hands of the cartels or the security forces who are assigned to fight them but too often work with them.
Medina said the trial didn’t focus enough on the suffering in Mexico. “Where was the mention of the disappeared?” she asks. And she said it was painful that Mexico did not have the institutional strength to judge him itself. After he escaped from two prisons here, Mexico extradited Guzman to the United States hours before President Donald Trump took power. “It is a shame on Mexico that we cannot convict our own criminals, that another country is delivering justice that we should be delivering.”
“God forgive him for poisoning the minds of our children,” says one woman whose son was abducted and killed.
In contrast, Baldomar Caceres, a singer who is originally from the mountains close to the home village of Guzman, said he was sad that the kingpin would spend the rest of his life in prison. “He did a lot of good. He gave to the poor and the sick,” Caceres tells me from the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacan where he now lives. “The government doesn’t help people in the sierra, but he did.”
His words reflect a common sentiment that I found in people in the Sinaloa mountains when I journeyed up to Guzman’s home village last year. To them, he was a hero who had risen from abject poverty to outwit the Mexican government and the gringos — at least until now.
Caceres says it was calm on the streets in Sinaloa and he didn’t expect violence. Some other singers were already composing ballads about the trial of El Chapo, he says, and he plans to write one himself. “I want to investigate more about it and write something original,” he says. Known as narco corridos, drug ballads are a popular genre in Mexico, and there are hundreds about the exploits of Guzman.
Alejandro Hope, a former federal intelligence official, says the result was no surprise. “The big news was El Chapo being captured and being extradited. After that this was the most likely outcome.” It was also predictable that a trial in the United States would focus on trafficking to Americans rather than murdering Mexicans, he says. “This trial was about El Chapo the drug trafficker, rather than El Chapo the mass murderer.”
The conviction of Guzman was no game changer, he says, as there were plenty of other traffickers to move drugs over the Rio Grande. But it did mark the end of a phase in Mexico’s drug war. “It provides a certain closure in the time of all powerful kingpins. Now we are in a more complicated crime ecosystem with many fragmented cartels. This is less threatening to governments but more threatening to public safety.”
As Mexico and the United States have worked to take down cartel kingpins over the last decade, the country to the south has only got bloodier, with cartels fragmenting into smaller chunks led by super-violent lieutenants who fight over every inch of territory. Last year was the most murderous since modern records began, with more than 33,000 homicides here. And Guzman spent that year in an American jail cell.
The new Mexican President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has said he wants to focus less on going after the trophy drug bosses and more on reducing violent crimes such as murders. It is yet to be seen if he can succeed in this. This coming weekend, he plans to travel to Guzman’s home municipality, where no active Mexican president has ventured before.
“He did a lot of good. He gave to the poor and the sick,” says a singer who grew up near El Chapo’s hometown.
Over the border from El Paso, it was Ciudad Juarez that suffered the most intense violence in Mexico’s drug war, with Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel fighting a long and catastrophic turf battle there. Sandra Ramirez is a local psychologist who has worked with victims of violence throughout this bloodletting. She said the Guzman verdict also gave her mixed emotions.
“I am pleased to see the methodical presentation of evidence that can help destroy the myth of El Chapo and his invincibility,” she says. “But I am sad that it is another country that does this, while we live with a broken justice system.”
The accusations in the trial that Mexican officials had taken bribes, allegedly right up to former President Enrique Pena Nieto, came as no surprise to Ramirez, or almost anyone else in Mexico. “It was an open secret that the cartels were working with politicians. How else could they have so much power?” she says. Yet she had little confidence the accused politicians would be convicted. “This situation can feel very hopeless.”
I have felt this same hopelessness covering the violence in Mexico, and searched to find inspiration that the situation could get better. The conviction of Guzman didn’t provide it. Yet if he had remained free, or somehow beaten the case in the United States, it would have been even worse.