After 13 years, Mexico busted "El Chapo," the country's most-wanted drug lord. Photographer: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images
After 13 years, Mexico busted "El Chapo," the country's most-wanted drug lord. Photographer: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty Images

The most edifying way to look at Saturday’s capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the world’s most sought-after drug lord, is parsing who wins and who loses.

The big winner for now is Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who can boast that his strategy to deal with drug cartels is working after just a year in office. The president had his aw-shucks moment when he said in a Monday speech to celebrate Mexico’s flag day that Guzman’s capture “confirms the efficacy of the Mexican state, but in no way should this be a reason to assume a triumphalist attitude, on the contrary this institutional achievement empowers us to move forward.”

Pena Nieto’s political foes also gained a soapbox to stand on. Perhaps the most notable example was Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, former mayor of Mexico City, who said the whole affair was nothing but “a circus” to divert attention from Mexico’s energy reforms. He added in a news conference over the weekend: “There is a mafia in power that has hurt Mexico a lot; it’s a white-collar criminality. When it comes to ill-gotten riches, ‘El Chapo’ is nothing but a lactating child compared to those who plunder Mexico.”

The capture also gives credibility to Mexico’s security forces and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, which had developed a reputation for striking deals with drug kingpins to keep bloodshed under control. Distrust of Mexico’s crime-fighting ability runs so deep that many Mexicans initially tweeted, “That is not El Chapo” when the first images of the captured drug lord became public. Gerardo Fernandez Norona, a Lopez Obrador ally, fed the controversy with a Saturday Twitter post: “The Chapo photos of @REFORMACOM confirm: That is not El Chapo.”

The U.S. can claim some credit for helping locate Guzman. A team of Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Marshal agents reportedly tracked the mobile phone of Guzman’s communications chief, Carlos Ho-Ramirez, a man dubbed “Condor.” The capture will no doubt help U.S. politicians justify the hefty spending on the war on drugs that critics decry as such a failure. Should Mexico extradite Guzman, it would be quite a trophy for the U.S. justice system.

The news media benefits as well. Newspapers and television newscasts have devoted much space and airtime to Guzman’s larger-than-life story. There is Guzman’s $1 billion fortune, his regular appearance in the Forbes billionaires list until last year, and Chicago’s move to declare him “Public Enemy No. 1” in 2013. Then there are the seven women who are linked to him and with whom he has fathered at least 14 children, according to the Reforma newspaper.

Add to that Guzman’s recent daring escape from police through a trapdoor hidden under a bathtub with a connecting tunnel that led to a sewer. Plus the discovery of plastic cucumbers he used to hide drugs, and soon the whole affair becomes a ratings bonanza.

What the Guzman saga doesn’t do is hobble his drug empire. Eliminating the head of the Sinaloa cartel probably won’t slow an institution responsible for almost a quarter of the drugs that make it to the U.S. Already “El Mayo,” one of Guzman’s lieutenants, is seen as a likely replacement.

What’s more, drug violence may worsen as other cartels vie for Guzman’s business. As Alejandro Hope, an expert on organized crime, pointed out Sunday: “The gangs that [emerge] from this probably do not represent a threat to the stability ... of the Mexican state as a whole.” But he added: “They certainly pose a major threat to the life, liberty and property of Mexicans.”

Mexican politicians interested in a different approach to illegal drugs would do well to listen to former Mexican President Vicente Fox. A farmer by trade, Fox has advocated the legal growing and distribution of pot in pharmacies. During a symposium last September, he argued that drugs should be seen, along with alcohol, abortion and same-sex marriage, as “arbitrarily imposed prohibitions that have ended. And they have ended because they don’t work.”

Journalist Eduardo Huchim took the iconoclastic riff a step further in a column yesterday in Reforma: “From a strictly economic point of view, we should ask ourselves where is the rationality of persecuting, imprisoning and exterminating our most successful exporters.”

Like it or not, illegal drugs are a business, albeit a bloody, risky and unsavory one. Governments will probably achieve more when they treat it as such. The industry supplies a demand far too powerful for any government to control through sheer force. If “El Chapo” doesn’t supply the goods, someone else will.