After the head of the vast and imminently destructive Sinoloa drug cartel Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped from prison last weekend, the Chicago Crime Commission named him the city’s Public Enemy No. 1.

The reason a Mexican drug lord (whose last known whereabouts were  two thousand miles away from the windy city) could be called its greatest nemesis is that though he may be far away, his influence is heavily felt. Not only does the Sinoloa cartel run drugs through the Midwest hub, they’re also suspected to be responsible for several recent grizzly murders in that neck of the woods.

El Chapo is actually only the second individual to ever be named Public Enemy No. 1 by the CCC. The first was Al Capone. The group told NY Daily News, “El Chapo has easily surpassed the carnage and social destruction that was caused by Capone.”

So, it’s clear that the Mexican cartels can affect America, but how much can the actions of American’s alter (hopefully, weaken) the cartels?

Stoners buying American

One thing is for certain. Legalization has caused a steep decline in marijuana sales for Sinoloa and the other controllers of Mexican drug routes. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection saw a 20.9% decrease in marijuana seizures in 2014 from the year before, indicative of an overall drop in material crossing the border, the CBP recently told Fusion.

Fusion also indicated the extent to which this could hurt the cartels. “Approximately 30 percent of cartels’ drug export revenues come from marijuana,” Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope told Fusion. “In the long term, Mexican marijuana could be displaced by legal production in the United States.”

It’s not just that it’s cheaper or the higher potency. American growers can do their thing more comfortably, right out in the open, so cultivation techniques are advancing. American weed is often made by enthusiasts striving for quality. Now that consumers have a taste for, and access to, that kind craft cannabis they’re less likely to turn to outdoor, compressed, smuggled stuff from south of the border.

Leaning toward skill-grown pot might also be seen as part of the same movement that have brought Millenials toward craft beer instead of Budweiser and gourmet and fast-casual dining instead of McDonald’s. Like those corporations, the trend toward green, quality products has hurt the cartels’ sales.

End of prohibition

Now that Chicago has passed Al Capone’s mantle to El Chapo, could that signal an end to the reign of terror caused by Sinoloa after federal marijuana legalization not unlike the end to bootlegger violence after the Volstead Act was repealed in the 1930’s?

Unfortunately, it’s more complicated than that. Though depriving the cartels of marijuana consumers may hurt their profits, these are sophisticated organizations that have proven capable of adaptation and diversification.

Even while Customs and Border Protection saw a steep decline in marijuana importation recently, they also saw a corresponding uptick in the amount of heroin and meth coming into the country from Mexico during the same period. This may be to make up for some of their lost cannabis revenue.

“The Sinaloa cartel has demonstrated in many instances that it can adapt…. I think it’s in a process of redefinition toward marijuana,” said Javier Valdez, a respected writer and expert on narco cultura, while speaking to NPR.

The Zetas of Tamaulipas state have gotten into extortion and kidnapping while being forced out of marijuana, said Valdez, but he expects El Chapo’s Sinoloa outfit to stick to narcotics as they’ve always done. “I believe that now, because of the changes they’re having to make because of marijuana legalization in the U.S., the cartel is pushing more cocaine, meth and heroin. They’re diversifying.”


Photo of El Chapo via Wikimedia

Parker Winship