In Mexico the apprehension or killing of top drug lords tends to be timed for maximum political advantage. The spectacular recapture of the world's most wanted drug kingpin, El Chapo Guzman, is no different. In just a month from now uber-popular Pope Francis will visit Mexico, and among his main themes will be the country's ruinous drug war. In fact, two of the four places on the Argentine pope's itinerary were primarily chosen for being epicenters of the bloody narco battles that have claimed some 100,000 Mexican lives since 2006 when Felipe Calderon became president and escalated the armed conflict with many of the Sinaloa cartel's rivals.
Even before his itinerary was announced, I was certain that the prophetic pope would visit Juarez, the embattled border city that until recently was known as Baghdad on the Border for its paroxysm of narco-violence caused by battles between El Chapo's Sinaloa cartel and the local Juarez syndicate for control of the key gateway to the vast hyperprofitable U.S. drug market. While the gritty border city was also chosen for being a port of entry into the U.S. for Mexican and Central American migrants, another major papal theme, the city of Morelia was selected solely for its strategic position in the decade-long drug war. In early 2007 former president Felipe Calderon, a native of Morelia, launched the current campaign against some of the cartels by sending the army to his home state of Michoacan to take on the brutal Familia Michoacana cartel who had amped up the terror in their territory by tossing severed heads onto the floor of a disco in Uruapan, the avocado capital of the world.
An old-school anti-drug warrior who recently ruffled a few Mexican feathers by warning his native Argentina to avoid "Mexicanization" or ramped up drug production, Pope Francis has taken a special interest in Michoacan because some of the Catholic clergy in the state have risked life and limb on the front lines of the drug war. More than a few parish priests have given their blessing to the autodefensas or paramilitary defense groups that have formed in the rugged Hot Lands (tierra caliente) region of the state with the purported purpose of defending the citizenry from the predatory cartels. And if Michoacan now has its first cardinal in the history of the state it's because Pope Francis himself elevated Archishop Alberto Suarez Inda to cardinal in February largely because of his condemnations of the narco-violence in his state. Migrants, Indigenous peoples and competition from Pentecostalism, the other major themes on the papal agenda, are relevant in Juarez and the southernmost state of Chiapas but not in Michoacan where the theme of cartel violence is singular.
For a highly unpopular president on the eve of the visit from the world's most esteemed leader, the timing of this, El Chapo's third capture, couldn't have been better. The surreal escape of the mustachioed kingpin six months ago while President Pena Nieto was in France was a humiliating blow to the head of state already reeling from corruption scandals and ineptitude in dealing with the case of the 43 college students from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, who were abducted and presumably murdered by local narcos and security forces. On the economic front, the Mexican peso has been in a free-fall over the past year, losing 20% of its value relative to the dollar.
But now with El Chapo back in prison and very likely headed for eventual extradition to the U.S., Pena Nieto has strengthened his political position in advance of the potentially embarrassing visit by the most popular leader in the Americas. The Mexican head of state's track record on the treatment of Central American migrants, Indigenous peoples and poverty reduction has earned him sharp criticism from many quarters. However, with the made-for-TV recapture of the Sinaloan kingpin, Pena Nieto can at least claim that he has a delivered a major blow to one of the world's most powerful drug cartels thus making him less vulnerable to papal denunciations of ongoing narco-violence, which the Vatican believes is symbolized by premier "narco-saint," Santa Muerte whom Pope Francis could condemn by name during his visit. In short, the recapture of the world's most notorious drug lord on the eve of the visit of the world's most popular religious leader couldn't have happened at a more opportune moment for the embattled Mexican president.