El Chapo’s Trial Was a Drug-War Propaganda Circus

    Extraditing drug dealers from around the world to stand trial in the States is a cynical attempt to demonstrate that the War on Drugs is winningwhen every metric shows the exact opposite. Drugs cross into the US from Mexico as freely as if there were no border, drug-sniffing dogs, militarized checkpoints, high-tech surveillance, armed border control agents, or gargantuan metal fences. Whatever the source, inside or outside the US, staggering quantities of all the drugs Americans want to buyheroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, fentanylare on the market.

    So how’s that drug war working for ya in the United States of Abstinence? You know, the endless war with the trillion-dollar price tag that’s been raging for over 50 years that was supposed to eradicate psychoactive substances so we could live happily ever after in a drug-free world? In 2019, a bag of heroin is cheaper than a pack of cigarettes in New York City.

    The three-month trial of the longtime head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, or “El Chapo” (“shorty”) ended on July 17. It was the latest in a series of drug war show trials. Extradition of drug kingpins to the US serves important purposes. It is payback for all the bros in the testosterone-fueled Drug Enforcement Administration, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. And it is propaganda. The courtroom becomes an international stage to show off and gloat about how they finally “got their man.”

    Prosecutors joined in, deliberately creating a circus-like atmosphere in the courtroom.

    In El Chapo’s case, it took them 30 years, but who’s counting? The drama was carefully curated for maximum press coverage. News conferences featured phalanxes of solemn-faced law enforcement officials from local, state and federal agencies. Their crass lines were scripted for media consumption. 

    “Who is Chapo Guzmán?,” asked one cop. “In short, he is a man who has known no other life than one of crime, violence, death and destruction.” El Chapo’s extradition to the US was a “milestone,” he declared. “I looked into Mr. Guzmán’s eyes and saw surprise, shock and even a bit of fear now that he was facing American justice.”

    Prosecutors joined in, deliberately creating a circus-like atmosphere in the courtroom. One day they wheeled in a cart full of AK-47s and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Because publicly parading guns and drugs always strengthens your argument.

    Showbiz happily cooperated. One day, Alejandro Edda, the actor who plays El Chapo in the Netflix show Narcos: Mexico, attended the trial. Guzmán cracked a smile and waved when his lawyers pointed out who Edda was.

    Outside the courtroom, the “Narcos: USA”  created a regular transportation spectacle that caused a traffic nightmare for New Yorkers. When Guzmán was extradited to the US in 2017, he was incarcerated at the Metropolitan Correctional Centera high-security, federal detention center in lower Manhattan. But his case was heard in a Brooklyn courthouse across the East River. Each time Guzmán was transported to the courthouse, the NYPD closed the entire Brooklyn Bridge to traffic and pedestrians. A heavily armed convoy of police cruisers, black Escalades, two ambulances and a black armored van carrying El Chapo slowly crossed the bridge with sirens wailing and lights flashing. It was quite a show.

    Law enforcement officials said it was necessary because in the past Guzmán had escaped from prison twice, and he was a target for assasination. But the real point of the parade of vehicles was to show the power of law enforcementand keep El Chapo’s trial in the news.

    A narrative absent from mainstream media’s sensationalized, gruesome accounts of the trial is that El Chapo is a creation of the US-led and funded global war on drugs. Guzmán and his ilk are a direct product of prohibition, which has always provided the opportunity for sadistic killers to acquire incalculable riches and unfettered power. It’s a symbiotic relationship: Drug warriors at the DEA need murderous drug lords like him to justify their continued existence and bloated, $3 billion annual budget.

    Until drug prohibition ends, drugs of all kinds will continue to pass through the Mexico-US border in cans of jalapeño peppers, in the rectums and stomachs of drug couriers, through tunnels, on boats, planes, trucks and trains. Even if Trump could block off the border—which he can’t—drugs would continue to flow from many other domestic and international sources.

    Instead of seeing drug prohibition and all its crimes against humanity being put on trial, the American taxpayer got three months of lurid Law & Order episodes.

    The drug war is “narco-capitalism” at its most violent and corrupt. Follow that money! The American corporations that supply both the Mexican drug cartels and US drug warriors with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, drones and cell phone-tapping technology love the drug war because astronomical profits are guaranteed year after year. The private prison industry loves it too. And don’t forget the international banking system that profits handsomely from laundering billions in illicit drug money. Rinse and repeat. Narco-capitalism doesn’t respect borders, international laws or human rights.

    Instead of seeing drug prohibition and all its crimes against humanity being put on trial, the American taxpayer got three months of lurid Law & Order episodes. The season finale ended with El Chapo sentenced to life in prison…plus 30 years.

    The sentence won’t help the Mexican people. The torture, the beheadings, the hangings from bridges, the executions in broad daylight, the assassinations of journalists and judges, the displacement of entire communities fleeing drug-war violence, the thousands of kidnappings and the horrific discoveries of mass gravesnone of it will be ended by this conviction. On the contrary, the “freelancer effectthe rush to fill the temporary power-vacuum when kingpins like Guzmán are arrestedtends to increase violence.

    On the US side of the border the crisis of overdose deaths will not be ended. Families will continue to be devastated upon finding loved ones dead in bathrooms and basements, and money that should be designated for evidence-based drug treatment will instead spent on the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor, on drug courts, on the racist drug war that fuels mass incarceration.

    So sorry not sorry that I don’t give two fucks that El Chapo will spend the rest of his life behind bars. The real tragedy is that the global war on drugs, which has killed far more people than Guzmán ever did and incarcerated millions, goes on.


    Photo of Joaquín Guzmán Loera arriving at Long Island MacArthur Airport in January 2017, via Wikimedia Commons

    • Helen is Filter‘s senior editor and a multimedia journalist. She is on the methadone, vaping and nicotine train. Helen is also a filmmaker. Her two documentaries about methadone are Liquid Handcuffs and Swallow THIS. As an LCSW, she has worked with people who use drugs for over two decades. Helen is an adjunct assistant professor and teaches a course about the War on Drugs at NYU. She lives in Harlem.

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