How are the Sinaloa Cartel and Leader El Chapo Any Different from ISIS?

This article is about the connection between radicalization, particularly in reference to Islamic extremists, and violence that we don’t normally see as being “radical” or “extremism” so much as a calculated means toward a capitalist end, i.e., drug gang violence. What is the difference between these two uses of violence?

I have argued before that any use of violence could be considered to be extremism. For the person whose life is destroyed or brought to an end by an act of violence, it’s a pretty damn radical change of course! So today, after watching this short YouTube video on the radicalization roadmap, I was struck by some of the similarities between the seven steps Iyad El-Baghdadi identifies in his roadmap and some of the statements and points made by and about Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in this spectacular Rolling Stone piece about the just recaptured Mexican drug kingpin by Sean Penn, who clandestinely met up with him while he was in hiding after his latest prison escape in July.

The radicalization roadmap focuses on a “we vs. them” narrative, beginning at step one with “otherization,” and working toward blaming the “other” for their complicity in oppressing “us.” Drug cartel violence may not begin with some common enemy, but there is an element of oppression expressed by Guzmán in the interview at the end of the Rolling Stone piece, when he states that the reason he got into the drug business was because where he grew up, there were (and still are) no job opportunities, so the only way to survive was to grow poppy and marijuana. I imagine that there actually were other, although more difficult ways, and he even talks about how hard his mother worked to help support his impoverished family. But the point is that there is a narrative of oppression here, which is step three on the radicalization roadmap. In El Chapo’s mind he’s just a humble servant of God, doing what he must for his family in the face of oppressive poverty — never mind the watches “that might be of more value than the money housed by the central banks of most nation-states” that Penn notes were on the wrists of both of El Chapo’s sons or the brash egotism of El Chapo’s desire to have a film made about himself that ultimately got him caught.
 Then, we jump to the final two steps on the roadmap, where a person rationalizes that any violence they commit is retaliation for and defense against the aggression of the “other” and that violence is the only way forward. Penn says that he “took some comfort in a unique aspect of El Chapo’s reputation among the heads of drug cartels in Mexico: that, unlike many of his counterparts who engage in gratuitous kidnapping and murder, El Chapo is a businessman first, and only resorts to violence when he deems it advantageous to himself or his business interests.” And Guzmán flatly denies in the interview that he is a violent person, claiming he uses violence only to defend himself, nothing more. All that, despite noting that, as a teenager, he quickly rose through the ranks “as a cold pragmatist known to deliver a single shot to the head for any mistakes made in a shipment.”

Sean Penn makes clear in the article that he is in no way an apologist for the kingpin, that in order to get Guzmán to talk to him at all, he must present himself as someone who is “fascinated and willing to suspend judgment.” And there is great value to this Rolling Stone piece, perhaps most of all in the irony of Penn’s meeting having led the authorities to El Chapo, despite all the super-secret spy craft (his men are pretty smug throughout the whole episode), but also in the unlikely narrative of an internationally known movie star risking his life to allow the most powerful drug cartel in the world to take him to a hideout deep into the jungles of Sinaloa, Mexico, in the company of a beautiful Mexican soap opera star, as the first step in the production of a biographical film.

But as entertaining as it all is, let us not get distracted by the soap-operatic drama from the horrific tragedy that the Drug War is imposing on the lives of regular people throughout Mexico and other Latin American countries. As Guzmán himself points out, eliminating him will have little effect on the illicit drug trade, as long as the current policies toward these substances and the war against those who are profiting from their illegality continue. Fortunately, the world is beginning to wake up and finally take on the established system, (for example, Uruguay, the nation where I currently reside, legalizing and regulating the marijuana market) and the winds of change are a-blowin’ across the globe.

And so I return to the connection between drug cartel violence and ideological radicalization. Even as the world is waking up to the concept that it’s the illegality of these drugs that is driving the violence, so perhaps we should change the laws and the implementation of those laws, I sense that things are going in the opposite direction, when it comes to what is driving the violence of Islamic extremism. If we can entertain the idea that many if not most of these drug dealers are not, by nature, violent people, that they are simply using violence because they have, over some years, developed a culture of violence due to the fact that it has proven a useful tool in their pursuit of their goals, would it be that difficult to apply the same principle to radicalized Muslims?

Iyad El-Baghdadi emphasizes in his lecture that it is incorrect to say that religious ideology is the reason why people are adopting an extremist ideology. It’s really a tribal/nationalistic ideology (which seems likely to also be a factor for the drug cartels) — or a politicization of religious identity (which is basically what Reza Aslan argues). Peaceful Muslims around the world understand this. So do reasonable, peaceful Christians who were appalled by the actions of Anders Behring Breivik near Oslo in 2011, whose assault on a summer camp killed way more people than the recent attacks in France did.

The answers to how to end the Drug War and how to stop ISIS and al-Qaeda are, in many respects, the same. We must look closely and honestly at the reasons why the violence is being perpetrated, at why people feel the urge or the need to take on a violent ideology, and work toward finding ways to remedy those issues. It’s complicated. Big social, economic, political, and cultural problems must be addressed. Massive historical forces must be mitigated.

Most importantly, as a first step, rather than “otherizing,” people who we don’t understand must be listened to.


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