06/22/12 – What was thought just two days ago to be another high profile arrest by the Calderón administration has quickly turned into what seems to be a missed opportunity by Mexican and U.S. security officials to move closer to the takedown of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Officials from the Mexican Navy (Secretaría de Marina, Semar) announced the arrest of Jesús Alfredo Guzmán Salazar on June 21, asserting that the young man in custody (seen at right) was El Chapo’s son and a rising star within his father’s powerful Sinaloa cartel. Jesús Guzmán was arrested in Guadalajara, Jalisco, by Mexican marines in an operation that spanned several months and that was heavily supported by U.S. intelligence gathered from the Drug Enforcement Agency. Another young man, who was also thought to be a member of the Sinaloa cartel, was arrested with Jesús Guzmán. The pair was found with a grenade launcher, ammunition, two assault rifles, two pistols, and $135,000 (USD) in cash. Authorities believe Jesús Guzmán has been given control of key cocaine trafficking routes from Mexico into the United States, and that his innovative approach to transportation has been key in the continued success of the cartel’s endeavors.
However, mere hours after Jesús Guzmán’s arrest and the subsequent press conference, challenges emerged to the true identity of the suspect presented, whose defense lawyer, Verónica Guerrero, asserts that her client has been grievously misidentified and is in reality Felix Beltrán León, an innocent citizen with no ties to the Sinaloa Cartel or El Chapo family. Guerrero and family members of Beltrán León have also argued that the other suspect detained is actually the half brother of Beltrán León and happened to be staying at his sibling’s house while passing through Guadalajara en route to Culiacán the night of the arrest.
Law enforcement in both Mexico and the United States are now separately trying to identity the suspect in custody, although both sides appear to be dodging the blame for the misinformation and confusion around the arrest. As quoted in the Washington Post, “The Mexican Navy and Mexican law enforcement have said this is El Chapo’s son and that’s what we took,” said DEA spokesman Rusty Payne. Yet Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) asserts otherwise, saying that U.S. intelligence was behind the raid. Meanwhile, the First District Court in Mexico has issued a provisional suspense of arrest (amparo) until the detainee’s identity can be conclusively determined. Beltrán León’s lawyer pressed the urgency of her client’s release, saying, “There is total confusion… which is having a serious effect on their personal and family situation,” alluding to the fact that her client is a young father who supports his family by working with his mother-in-law in car sales. The men will remain in custody, however, as Mexican officials are looking into the weapons and large quantities of cash confiscated from Beltrán León’s house during the arrest.
Outside of the obvious frustration from U.S. and Mexican officials for not catching their suspect, the unfolding case is exemplary of the state of legal rights and rights of the accused in Mexico. The protocols for presenting arrested suspects to the media were reformed in April following pressure from human rights organizations claiming such ‘presentations’ violated the notion of innocent until proven guilty. While it appears that authorities stayed within their means during Thursday’s presentation to the media, that the two men have been incorrectly identified, detained, paraded in front of international press, and have still not been found guilty of anything is arguably a step back in the reform and progress Mexico has been trying to make within its legal system.
In the long run, the operation that opened this case was spawned by mounting pressure from officials in both the United States and Mexico to capture El Chapo and his family in recent months. The real Jesús Guzmán and his mother, El Chapo’s ex-wife María Alejandrina Salazar, were recently sanctioned by the U.S. government for providing material support and involvement with the trafficking activities of El Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel. Leaders on both sides of the border insist such measures are not vindictive and were not based on the familial relationship between Salazar, El Chapo, and their son. Rather, the cartel often recruits family members into the operation, resulting in significant overlap between the profession and personal lives of those involved with the group. Authorities have said that both Salazar and Jesús Guzmán stand accused of serving as key elements in the Sinaloa Cartel structure as individuals and will be prosecuted for their crimes, not their relationship to El Chapo.