The lead article in last week’s Proceso talks about the political importance of capturing El Chapo for both the Calderon and Obama administrations. The article is worth a read in its entirety, but the focus of this post is on a quote from the informed and esteemed analyst/lawyer/economist Edgardo Buscaglia:
“For Obama, El Chapo is Osama Bin Laden not because he is a psycho-social disturbance [as was bin Laden] , but because of the need for Obama to assure his reelection and show signs of an internal cleaning of his government, which the republicans have questioned”
I think Buscaglia may be overestimating how much Americans care about El Chapo when it comes time to casting a ballot.
While Chapo is indeed an important figure for US officials – he became number 1 on the FBI’s most wanted list after the death of Osama Bin Laden, and there is a bounty of $5 million for information leading to his whereabouts – I question the importance that the American electorate places on his capture.
A June 2011 Gallup poll ranked jobs and the economy as the two most pressing issues for American voters. Barring a major attack on US soil, I imagine these will be pretty consistent throughout campaign season. Crime and security (terrorism) did not rank highly, let alone specific threats from Mexican crime syndicates. Republican candidates that have actually laid out what their strategies would be to confront the threat of these groups in the US and abroad have been cursory at best (Mitt Romney), and laughable at worst (Rick Perry). The agendas (or lack thereof) reflects voters’ priorities; cartel violence makes for scary headlines, but as a priority it is way down on the list for most of the country.
Many US news outlets – particularly the cable TV news networks – that cover Mexico paint a very black-and-white picture of the conflict, often lumping cartels together and failing to distinguish motives and names. Given that the majority of Americans still find out about the world via TV, this suggests an overall limited understanding (even amongst policy experts) of the situation. While El Chapo may have more name recognition amongst Americans than other leaders of powerful organized crime groups in Mexico, he does not come close to the ubiquitous level of recognition reached by Osama Bin Laden. I’m not sure how many can even identify him as the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel or the significance of this group.
That said, the details probably don’t matter all that much; what matters is what seems like a victory against evil. Even there, I’m not sure how much a capture would help. There is arguably no greater ‘we got him’ for the American electorate than the May 2011 death of Osama Bin Laden. Despite this win, Obama is far from a shoo-in in 2012. I am skeptical that the capture of the less well-known Chapo would do much to help Obama’s chances in 2012.