For the second time, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, head of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, made a dramatic getaway, escaping on the night of July 11 through an elaborate tunnel system below the maximum-security prison just west of Mexico City where he was being held.
AS/COA Online’s Carin Zissis, based in Mexico City, talks with a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and security expert about why Guzmán tops Mexico’s most wanted list, as well as the political repercussions of his escape.
1. Guzmán’s criminal syndicate has a transnational reach.
A farmer-turned-cartel leader, El Chapo (“Shorty”) famously acquired his nickname due to his height, or lack thereof. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still loom large as a cartel leader. Mexican magazine Nexos profiled him after his February 2014 capture in the Sinaloan resort town of Mazatlan, reporting that his cartel had the capacity to move 10,000 tons of marijuana—35 percent of the global supply—each month. His syndicate operates in 17 Mexican states and 54 countries. An in-depth 2012 article by The New York Times Magazine put conservative estimates of the Sinaloa Cartel’s share of the U.S. drug market at between 40 and 60 percent, giving it earnings that rivaled those of Netflix or Facebook.
Such numbers, along with Guzmán’s ability to elude capture for over a dozen years while cultivating a Robin Hood persona, cast a long shadow over Mexico’s rule of law.
2. This isn’t the first time El Chapo escaped, but last time it was on another political party’s watch.
Guzmán went to jail in 1993, serving eight years of a 20-year sentence before his escape from another maximum-security prison. That jailbreak reportedly cost him $2.5 million and, rumor has it, involved fleeing by hiding in a laundry cart.
That means the kingpin was captured while the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was in power but escaped in 2001, right after the National Action Party (PAN) took the reins. Peña Nieto made this point during his campaign as a PRI candidate, arguing that his was the party that caught El Chapo while the PAN let him go and got him on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people.
3. Hit me twice: The escape has a major political impact.
In 2014, Mexican marines caught Guzmán with no shots fired in an operation that involved collaboration from U.S. authorities and drew accolades for the Peña Nieto government. Days later, in an Univisión interview, the president said another escape “would be unforgivable.”
Fast forward to the current scenario, and onlookers and media outlets are calling the escape a major embarrassment. “There is no way to look at this other than as a huge setback on an issue [rule of law] on which there has been very little progress, and the administration has almost no credibility," says Mexico City-based lawyer, Americas Society board member, and former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Antonio Garza via email.
News of the escape spread like wildfire over the weekend, as Peña Nieto landed in France, casting a pall on his state visit there. Since taking office, the president has sought to burnish Mexico’s reputation abroad after a government-led offensive against organized crime launched during the previous administration claimed tens of thousands of lives and continues to do so. But outrage over the disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero along with a presidential property scandal took a toll on his government’s image, reaching a crescendo in November 2014 when Peña Nieto was also traveling—at that point to Asia.
Whether Guzmán’s escape could result in political change, such as cabinet shifts, remains to be seen. “Peña Nieto hopes this will blow over,” said security analyst and editor of El Daily Post Alejandro Hope in an interview. “The defining factor will be the U.S.,” he said, adding that changes could depend on Washington’s comfort level with working with certain Mexican officials in the wake of this incident.
4. The jailbreak comes at a time when Mexico’s crime rates are on the rise.
The government has heralded its security efforts based on an ability to capture leaders of organized criminal groups while touting a decrease in crime. “They’re very adept at capturing capos, not keeping them in jail,” quipped Hope on the first point. On the second, he noted that May was Mexico’s deadliest month since October 2013 and that the 2015 homicide rate will likely outpace that of last year. With 1,621 homicides in May, the average number of people murdered reached 52 per day.
Hope attributes the uptick in crime to a series of factors. With the capturing of kingpins comes a fracturing of cartels, leading to smaller, predatory gangs. Also, the heroin trade is growing, with the country’s poppy crop concentrated in violence-plagued Guerrero. On top of that, Hope explains, there are no other areas that appear ripe for the “miracle effect” of a big drop in crime, as was the case in cities like Ciudad Juarez or Monterrey.
5. El Chapo could face extradition to the United States if caught again.
Aside from charges against him in Mexico, Guzmán faces at least seven indictments in the United States for drug trafficking and related crimes. Speculation rages as to why the Peña Nieto government sought to keep him in Mexico and possibly warned Washington off of a formal extradition request. Some say it stems from fears that Guzmán would become a U.S. informant and name names—including Mexican officials. Another theory is that the Peña Nieto government sought to differentiate itself from that of his predecessor Felipe Calderón, who extradited large numbers of criminals during his tenure. Finally, the Mexican government may have wanted to prove it could capture, prosecute, and jail El Chapo.
It’s the last point where the government came up short, raising concerns about high-level corruption. Hope points out that escaping a maximum-security prison like the one where Guzmán was held takes planning and access to information like floor plans to build the kind of elaborate tunnel used for the getaway—in other words, “complicity well beyond any random guard.”
Should authorities capture Guzmán again, Mexico could face greater extradition pressure next time around. Says Garza: “Bottom line, he should have been in a U.S. prison.”