Will El Chapo's Arrest Make the Drug Trade More Deadly?

Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron explains why taking out cartel kingpins demonstrates the folly of prohibition.


Mexico's most notorious drug kingpin, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, has been awaiting trial in the United States since his dramatic capture in 2016. Federal prosecutors have filed charges of drug trafficking, murder, money laundering, and kidnapping against Guzmán, who ran the notorious Sinaloa cartel for more than 40 years. El Chapo gained notoriety for his daring prison escapes, and for his controversial 2016 interview with Hollywood star Sean Penn while hiding as a fugitive from the law.

The U.S. and Mexican governments have declared Guzmán's capture a major win in the drug war. Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Miron thinks his story better demonstrates the folly of prohibition.

"When we interfere on the supply side with the drug trade by taking out kingpins and other ways, we tend to lower the prices partially because we're making the market more competitive," says Miron, who's also the head of economic studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. "Where there's demand, there's going to be supply."

The capture of kingpins doesn't just tend to make cartels more competitive in the marketplace. It can also increase violence as rival factions battle to fill the power vacuum.

A 2015 research brief conducted by Miron and his Cato colleagues Jason Lindo and Maria Padilla-Romo shows that capturing a leading drug trafficker "in a municipality increases its homicide rate by 80 percent" over a 12-month period. In neighboring municipalities, the homicide rate rises 30 percent in the six-month period after a kingpin's capture.

Over the last decade, the United States has contributed over $2 billion in money and intelligence resources to aid the Mexican government with their counternarcotics efforts, which focus on the elimination of drug cartel kingpins. In 2012, Gen. Charles Jacoby, who led the U.S. Northern Command from 2011 to 2014, admitted to Congress that removing kingpins did not have "an appreciable, positive effect" in limiting the operations and reach of Mexican drug cartels.

"In my view the best policy is to legalize everything," says Miron. "The harms come almost entirely from the prohibitions, not from the properties of the substance."

Reason spoke to Miron about the lessons to be learned from El Chapo's capture and if the Trump administration's latest calls for tougher punishment for drug dealers to combat the "terrible crisis of opioid and drug addiction" is opening a new front in the drug war.

Produced by Alexis Garcia. Cameras by Todd Krainin and Mark McDaniel.

"Cutting to the Chase" by Kai Engel is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/4.0/) Source: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kai_Engel/Paradigm_Lost/02_-_Cutting_To_The_Chase Artist: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kai_Engel/

"Forgotten Marches" by Kai Engel is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/) Source: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kai_Engel/Written_in_Ink/Kai_Engel_-_Written_in_Ink_-_04_Forgotten_Marches Artist: http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kai_Engel/

"Seeger" by John Deley and the 41 Players. Source: https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/music

Photo Credits: Mario Guzmán/EFE/Newscom—Mexican Attorney General's Office—Pgr/Ho/Prensa International/Zuma Press/Newscom—Str/picture alliance/dpa/Newscom—José Menéndez/EFE/Newscom—Henry Romero/REUTERS/Newscom—Edgard Garrido/REUTERS/Newscom—Shawn Thew/Pool/CNP/MEGA/Newscom—Kyle Mazza/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/Newscom

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  1. Hey, if it keeps even one raccoon from getting frighteningly stoned, it’s worth it.

    1. Bad, but not as bad as a trash panda on LSD.

    2. Back in the 1960s we were firmly committed to leaving no tern unstoned.

  2. When Avon Barksdale got bagged, what happened?

    I don’t need to hear from Harvard to figure that one out.

  3. Most important economic lesson El Chapo’s example teaches is the Sean Penn Devaluation Vector.

    Sean Penn visits and endorses a socialist paradise? A few years later near-anarchy and starvation. Sean Penn ‘secretly’ meets drug kingpin who’s escaped numerous Mexican prisons for interview? TMZ frontpage and interviewee extradited to Club Fed. Sean Penn marries a extrovert pop singer? Boom, turned into Madonna blowing Dennis Rodman in an alley.

    Avoid Sean Penn at all costs.

  4. Death, destruction, and expense on a massive scale all in the absence of a more-dreadful counterexample to illustrate the alternative to prohibition. We LibertariansTM should not rest until we can get a Mc8-Ball with our #3s.

  5. I knew we would be able to somehow blame this all on Sean Penn.

  6. Liberals have the opposite view on dealing with prostitution: leave the “dealers” alone and punish the users.

  7. “When we interfere on the supply side with the drug trade by taking out kingpins and other ways, we tend to lower the prices partially because we’re making the market more competitive”

    SOMETIMES TRUE: If exports are lowered as a result of the bust, drug prices go up due to the decrease in supply. More often than not, prices do rise, which encourages new players to enter the game and seek the increased profit margins. Those most adept at securing bribes and intimidation (or killing) of rivals secure the available market share. On the micro side, price increases result in addicts stealing more shit to get their fixes. The more effective job done by the DEA, the more impossible their job becomes.

    It’s better for all when cartels have a firm grip on their market. Making money with minimal drama is their goal. Cutting off heads is a byproduct of power struggles to control the (permanent) lucrative illegal drug market.

    ** From the perspective of a former black market entrepreneur who lives 1/2 time in Mexico (Baja.)

  8. Will El Chapo’s Arrest Make the Drug Trade More Deadly?

    Likely yes. At least temporarily as the empire he controlled is faught over

  9. This is related to the squirrel enigma. I live-trap (non-native) squirrels from my back yard. I catch 2-3 per week and drive them several miles for release (consider their release point jail). Within a few days another squirrel fills in for the one I just removed. This has been going on for a long time.

    The same happens with drug dealers; remove one and more fill in the void.

    I knew that there was a relationship between squirrels and drugs and this proves it.

    1. I have conducted the exact same experiment with identical results.

  10. Miron should know by now that religious prohibitionists couldn’t care less how many people their sumptuary laws kill. By 1929 estimates ran into the thousands over beer and plant products, and the Methodist White Terror pronounced the homicides justifiable acts of enforcement. Rep. Millard Tydings and the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment published expos?s. Bit it was only when the “Economic Results of Prohibition” made it clear that fanatics with service pistols had collapsed the entire economy that the Liberal Party repeal plank got serious attention. Why should today be any different?

  11. The US has no fucking business arresting foreign citizens.

  12. Canada is debating legalizing all drugs. They have figured it out, rightly that locking someone up for using drugs does not do Society one bit of good. This is so blatantly f****** obvious! Why cannot the United States figure it out? Fucking morons.

    Of course, the end result of our policies is jail (kidnapping), theft (asset forfeiture) and productivity lost through useless police jobs and the users who could otherwise be productive. Not to mention loss of Liberty and the evisceration of the Fourth Amendmen t. Maybe someday the DEA agents will be seen as the criminals that they are. I will be 6 feet under before these policies change in the United States. Sad.

    1. There are historic reasons for fear. Opiates were used by christians to manipulate the Chinese and bleed off their wealth. When the 1911 Revolution finally excluded those genuinely addictive drugs, Balkan suppliers and Austro-German refiners went into a financial tailspin. WWI was a way of stopping the ratification of the Hague antiopium protocol. WWII looks to have had similar causes. So a mixed economy dependent on the initiation of force to keep protected opiate traffic bringing in the cash was and may still pose a danger of war. But medicine, uncoerced alternatives, competition–the things libertarians favor–are likely to produce something better than WWI.

    1. It seems like Trump is just saying that to divert attention from his stormy issues. I hope he is not just giving lip service to this issue.

      Why couldn’t Obama repeal the scheduling of marijuana as a class 1 substance?

  13. I see another parallel. Recall how Milton Friedman criticized socialists for their messiah complex, expecting the right man on a white horse to set stuff right? Prohibitionist nationalsocialists have a satanic complex, urging the extermination of the wrong guy on a black horse to set things right.

  14. Everytime I see El Chapo I keep wondering when the Three Amigos will show up

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