Center for Strategic Communication

A special forces soldier secures a perimeter during an exercise on Feb. 15, 2010. Photo: EUCOM

Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is arguably the world’s most wanted criminal, supplanting Osama bin Laden after the terrorist mastermind’s death during a Navy SEAL raid in May 2011. Now the Pentagon reportedly has a plan to send the SEALs after El Chapo too. There are lots of reasons why the report may be off. Chief among them: The Mexicans hate U.S. troops on their soil even more than the Pakistanis do.

According to anonymous Mexican and U.S. military sources cited by Proceso magazine (translated from Spanish), the plan involves sending Navy SEALs by helicopter after the Sinaloa Cartel kingpin, who is rumored to be hiding in the mountains of the western Mexican states of Sinaloa and Durango. The SEALs would be divided into two teams — one would land and attack, and the other would stay airborne — assisted by three unmanned drones packing missiles.

After locating El Chapo, the SEALs would “eliminate any of Chapo’s security on the spot … as they did with the ‘Bin Laden’ operation,” according to Proceso. If El Chapo is killed, the SEALs would take the kingpin’s body with them. The plan is reported to have been ordered by the Pentagon and Northern Command (NORTHCOM), which oversees military operations in North America. If enacted, U.S. officials would observe from the White House and NORTHCOM headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. The plan is also reported to be U.S.-only, excluding the Mexican military.

It’s a remarkably detailed look at the alleged plan. But there are also several problems, some seemingly insurmountable. And there are questions over whether it’d even work.

According to Proceso, outgoing President Felipe Calderón was reportedly keen to the idea, but faced objections from the Mexican army and navy. The Mexican navy — which includes Mexico’s marines — is one of the main strike forces against the cartels. An American strike would also blatantly violate Mexican law, which prohibits foreign military and law enforcement agencies from operating on Mexican soil, except under tightly controlled conditions and never armed.

There’s also the risk of inflaming sentiment against the United States. Although there’s a growing minority of Mexican citizens who support greater U.S. involvement, including intervention, the Mexican public is largely opposed to the idea. In 2011, worsening drug violence and discussions of a greater U.S. intervention helped contribute to a nadir in U.S.-Mexico relations. The Wall Street Journal reported that Mexican officials were “enraged” by the suggestion of sending U.S. troops. For criticizing the effectiveness of the Mexican military, the former U.S. ambassador, Carlos Pascual, was thrown out of the country. The $1.6 billion Merida Initiative, which provides U.S. aid for Mexico’s military, has more political support but has faced intense opposition from academics, journalists and human rights activists.

What’s more, killing El Chapo may also not have the same effect as killing Bin Laden. It wouldn’t stop the drugs flowing north, as there would likely be someone ready to take his place.

“The Obama administration has a policy to disrupt transnational criminal organizations as well as improve security in Mexico,” James Bosworth, a Latin American crime and security analyst, tells Danger Room in an e-mail. “How much does getting El Chapo really contribute to those goals? It certainly has some effect, but El Chapo is no bin Laden, symbolically, ideologically or organizationally.”

At best, Bosworth says, the Sinaloa Cartel would take a hit and slowly bounce back. At worst, the Sinaloa Cartel would collapse into civil war, creating more violence and creating an opportunity for El Chapo’s rivals. “That doesn’t mean that El Chapo isn’t worth getting,” Bosworth says. But, he notes, that doesn’t mean getting El Chapo is worth a high-risk operation that could damage relations with Mexico.

Proceso reports that the U.S. plans to broach the idea with Mexico’s new incoming president, Enrique Peña Nieto. The incoming president, however, has de-emphasized the decapitation strategy of killing cartel leaders, focusing instead on reducing violence by reforming Mexico’s cops and cracking down on kidnapping. U.S. military officials have also expressed some reservations about killing cartel leaders.

U.S. officials have also not made an explicit comparison between Bin Laden and El Chapo, instead preferring to hint that El Chapo will meet an inglorious end. “It took us 10 years to trap Osama Bin Laden; we found him and you know what happened,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Mexico’s then-interior secretary in February. “I don’t think the same thing will happen with Guzmán, the only thing I am suggesting is that we are persistent when we are close to evil that harms both countries, yours and ours.”

NORTHCOM, the military command named by Proceso as part of the El Chapo hunt, is known more for running homeland defense drills than for hunting criminal masterminds. In an e-mail exchange between Stratfor analysts spilled by WikiLeaks, however, there were indications that the military’s chief terror-hunters might take on the mission. According to an e-mail dated Nov. 11, 2010, Stratfor analyst Reva Bhalla wrote that a friend — a special agent assigned to the Joint Special Operations Command — said U.S. special forces are “leaning forward with expanding their footprint INSIDE Mexico,” Bhalla wrote. And it’d be timed “as a possible advanatge [sic] to Obama’s re-election campaign, however, State is raising foreign policy objections.” Stratfor chief Fred Burton replied that the decision would be leaked before the election, and that “it has nothing to do w/killing narcos.”

Another leaked e-mail dated to March 2010 describes a meeting between U.S. and Mexican officials — to cooperate on taking down the cartels. A “shitton” of undercover U.S. agents, according to the e-mail, were already operating in Mexico, and Mexico agreed at the meeting to share intelligence. The U.S., meanwhile, has sent advisers and the CIA to help plan operations led by the Mexican army. American security contractors have also been actively pitching their services to the Pentagon, which has hired the mercenaries to train Mexican troops.

El Chapo is also not a sitting — if secretive — duck. In addition to roaming Mexico’s mountain west, he also apparently frequently travels outside Mexico. In February, he apparently slipped away from a Mexican military raid. He’s also been reported to sometimes travel along with hundreds of men for protection.

There’s also another major difference. Central to Bin Laden’s strategy was targeting “symbols and citizens of the U.S. (and other western nations),” wrote analyst Patrick Corcoran of InSight, a Latin American crime monitor. El Chapo and the cartels, Corcoran wrote, have generally avoided doing the same, preferring to “tread carefully … as they have for generations.” While the U.S. may be in a de facto state of war with the cartels, it’s bad for El Chapo’s business to target the American homeland directly. That may change, though, if El Chapo gets desperate.