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Does poverty lead to drug trafficking? The world's notorious trafficker says yes

POSTED: January 18, 2016 4:09 a.m.
Daniel Lombardi/

El Chapo told Sean Penn about the poverty he experienced as a child. Today, the violence perpetuated by the drug cartels may be causing more poverty. Still, many Mexicans prefer the cartels to the government.

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A picture of Sean Penn made headlines this week by showing the actor shaking hands with the drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, also known as El Chapo.

Rolling Stone magazine published the picture along with a more than 10,000-word account from Penn about how the picture with Guzmán came to be taken at the end their seven-hour meeting together. The Rolling Stone article also includes a brief interview Penn conducted with Guzmán several weeks later via a translated video.

Throughout their time together, Guzmán told Penn about the poverty he experienced as a child and how it motivated him to join the drug trade.

“I remember from the time I was 6 until now, my parents, a very humble family, very poor,” said Guzmán. “I was raised in a ranch named La Tuna, in that area, and up until today, there are no job opportunities. The only way to have money to buy food, to survive, is to grow poppy, marijuana.”

Penn also asked Guzmán about the violence brought to Mexico by the drug trade.

“Well, it's a reality that drugs destroy,” responded Guzmán, and indeed, tens of thousands of Mexicans have been killed by drug violence. “Unfortunately, as I said, where I grew up there was no other way and there still isn't a way to survive, no way to work in our economy to be able to make a living.”

If Guzmán was indeed pushed into the drug trade by poverty the violence, his drug cartel now orchestrates may be pushing others into poverty, creating a vicious cycle. In 2010, CNN reported that violence was scaring off potential tourists.

"The business, you can see for yourself, it went down 95 percent," a Mexican business owner told CNN. "Please tell them, the Americans, it's safe to come here.”

In 2015, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Mexico, putting it on a list alongside Syria and Somalia.

The connections between poverty, violence and the drug trade are complex but well-documented around the world.

“This is a vicious cycle — poor development fuels conflict, which fuels the drug trade, which fuels conflict, which fuel poverty,” Nick Crofts wrote for The Guardian. “As with most vicious cycles, this one is extremely hard to break.”

Crofts went on to encourage a more holistic approach from drug control agencies.

“Drug control agencies must learn to better look beyond the simple realities of drug production, and take into account the social and economic factors that fuel cultivation and consumption," he said.

However, many residents of Sinaloa, Guzmán’s home state, see the drug trade as a more virtuous rather than vicious cycle. The New York Times reported this week that Guzmán's cartel has become a shadow state, often keeping order more efficiently than the government and even building schools and hospitals in poor neighborhoods.

With the drug lord gone many Mexicans fear his absence will be filled with waves of violence.

“We were perfectly comfortable when El Chapo was here,” a 16-year-old named Elvira told The Times. “Now we are worried someone else is going to come here and try to fill his spot.”

A woman living near the scene of Guzmán’s capture named Martha López said, “Now that El Chapo has been captured, I am worried that all those young men that were employed by him are going to be left hanging jobless.”
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