Donald Trump wants a border wall. The El Chapo verdict shows why it won’t work – Donald Trump’s America
Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman brought his drugs into the US through legal points of entry. (Reuters: Tomas Bravo)
As the trial of El Chapo came to a close, US President Donald Trump was debating whether to reopen an old sore.
The US Congress has reached a bipartisan deal on funding for his US-Mexican border wall, just days before a deadline that could shut down the government again.
Offering $US1.375 billion ($1.832 billion) for fencing, the deal falls far short of the President’s demand for $5.7 billion.
When asked if he would veto the bill, Mr Trump danced around an answer.
“I’m not happy about it. It’s not doing the trick,” he said.
“But I’m adding things to it. And when you add whatever I have to add, it’s all going to happen where we’re going to build a beautiful, big, strong wall.”
Brandishing his power to declare a state of emergency, Mr Trump said the US needed a wall to stop, among other things, “drugs and drug dealers”.
As he spoke, a jury in New York found Joaquin Guzman (aka El Chapo) — perhaps the most notorious drug smuggler of them all — guilty of operating a mammoth criminal enterprise known as the Sinaloa drug cartel.
The jury’s decision guarantees a life sentence. It’s doubtful Guzman will ever be granted parole.
The District Attorney on his case said Guzman sold “billions and billions of dollars worth of narcotics” to the US, including heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana.
Ten weeks of testimony and an avalanche of evidence revealed how the cartel operated on a daily basis. It’s the first time prosecutors have opened a high-profile drug trial to the public, disclosing the inner workings of the US drug trade.
Taking down the kingpin is not going to end drug trafficking, but what we’ve learned from the trial could inform strategies to control it.
The cartel used legal points of entry
Though it never explicitly mentioned a border wall, the El Chapo trial methodically revealed how the cartel brought the drugs across the border.
Under Guzman’s guidance, drugs were smuggled by plane, train, automobile, submarine, boat, tunnel and banana peel.
Some of the packages of marijuana seized by authorities during one raid on El Chapo. (Reuters: Jorge Duenes)
Frequently, the cartel would construct front companies that sold legal items. After shipping a few clean loads north into American cities, Guzman’s associates would pack drugs into compartments or stuff drugs into the products themselves.
One witness described how Guzman filled cans of jalapenos with cocaine, stacked them on the back of commercial tractor-trailers and drove through legal points of entry, no questions asked.
The cartel took larger loads, though less frequently, by rail and sea. Sometimes operatives transported millions in cash.
In other words, the Sinaloa’s narcotics were not snuck through the so-called “soft spots” that Mr Trump describes. They weren’t taking advantage of a lack of concrete wall or steel-slat fence. They were going through legal points of entry.
And then there’s the tunnels
When the drug kingpin escaped from a maximum-security Mexican prison in 2015 —for the second time — it was through a sophisticated tunnel, stretching from the floor of his cell to a shack some two kilometres away.
Rumour has it he sent his top men to learn the dark art of tunnelling in Germany for a few months.
During the trial, one of El Chapo’s top logistics officers explained how he dug tunnels from Mexico to the US border state of Arizona in the early 1990s.
One such outlet exited just a few blocks from a Customs and Border Protection office.
US media outlets have reported drug-smuggling tunnels as deep as 27 metres. Some contained lighting systems, ventilation, drainage and lifts.
And authorities estimate tunnels are a popular method of trafficking drugs. US Border Patrol reported seven tunnels in San Diego alone in 2017.
As one official told the Washington Post, the ground near Mexico is “like Swiss cheese”.
A southern border wall has been a key promise of Donald Trump’s presidency. (AP: Gregory Bull)
High-profile insiders help protect the trade
One witness said Guzman once paid former Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto $100 million in exchange for a clean escape. Court documents suggest Mr Pena Nieto had asked for $250 million.
Mr Pena Nieto’s former spokesman said the allegations were “false, defamatory and absurd”.
The Mexican Government asked the judge in the trial to block testimony about corruption at its highest levels. In the end, the judge allowed some details to be released.
Guzman’s associates accused police, prosecutors and army commanders of accepting bribes.
Current Mexican President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has pledged a fresh approach to fighting cartels.
Among his campaign slogans was “hugs not gunfire”, a promise to end violence instead of arresting high-ranking members.
But a court document from Guzman’s trial alleges that one of Mr Lopez Obrador’s aides may have taken a bribe from the Sinaloa cartel in 2006.
The President has denied the allegations.