By Peter Andreas for The Guardian. El Chapo gave the international drug trade a high-profile recognizable face – and we will miss him now that he is gone. It is always convenient – whether for politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, scriptwriters or the larger public – for a problem to have a familiar face to hate and target. Al Capone was the face of Prohibition-era organized crime, Pablo Escobar the face of Colombia’s cocaine wars and Osama Bin Laden the face of transnational terrorism.
It is far easier to blame and go after a ruthless individual or set of individuals for problems that have deeper, messier, more complex roots. In the case of El Chapo, having him at the top of the “most wanted” list creates flashy headlines, sells newspapers, justifies budgets and provides tough sounding political sound bites; extreme poverty and displacement in Mexico and other Latin American drug exporting countries and woefully inadequate drug treatment and addiction research in the United States and other consumer countries do not.
Having a drug lord like El Chapo to point a finger at for America’s growing heroin problem makes it easier to gloss over the fact that there are actually far more prescription opioid overdoses than heroin overdoses; and even though four out of five heroin users in the US reportedly began by using prescription opioids, El Chapo, not big pharma, grabs our attention.