Drug Lord on the Run: Impunity, Injustice, and Crime in Mexico

Seventeen months ago, I penned an op-ed celebrating Mexico’s capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Gúzman, the world’s most wanted drug kingpin.

In the interim, El Chapo was imprisoned in Altiplano, Mexico’s highest-security prison.

And last Saturday, El Chapo escaped.

Seventeen months: that was all it took for the mightiest drug lord to orchestrate and carry out his elaborate escape. Those seventeen months saw the digging of a mile-long tunnel starting far outside prison grounds and ending directly below El Chapo’s cell. They saw the construction of a small cinderblock house covering the tunnel’s exit. They saw the installation of rail lines and a specially-adapted motorcycle in the tunnel, speeding El Chapo’s escape.

But no one, it seems, saw it all coming.

Fourteen years ago, after El Chapo’s initial capture by Mexican authorities, the drug lord escaped by bribing prison staff to wheel him out of jail buried deep in a cart of dirty laundry. Dozens of prison workers were implicated in that escape—including the warden.

So when El Chapo was captured in early 2014, one doubt seemed omnipresent: could he do it again?

Absolutely not, touted the administration of Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto. A second escape would be “unforgiveable,” in the president’s own words. And Mexico’s judicial system had been so thoroughly bolstered in the intervening years that another escape was outside the realm of possibility.

Therein lies the first problem: Peña Nieto was clearly wrong.

Mexico’s justice sector, however improved, is still a feeble shadow of what his administration claimed. The integrity of that sector—and indeed of Mexico’s entire security apparatus—is now called into question. And it should be, as long as the country’s most wanted criminal can operate with complete impunity.

But ultimately, that’s not a big surprise. When El Chapo was captured last year, the U.S. government immediately requested his extradition, citing their fear he might escape again, given how heavily corruption and bribery factored into his earlier escape. Officials in Mexico brushed off the request, saying El Chapo must face his crimes in Mexico first and foremost, confident in their own capacity to hold him accountable.

That history isn’t quickly forgotten: in her official statement following his escape, U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch offered U.S. support in recapturing El Chapo—and reminded everyone that the U.S. justice sector is eager to try him for his crimes, too. The overwhelming sentiment is that had Mexico agreed to El Chapo’s extradition, the criminal would still be in prison—not carrying out his highly romanticized getaway.

All in all, his escape is a huge blow to Peña Nieto’s administration, which has prided itself on results, as demonstrated through several high-level arrests. El Chapo’s escape all but undoes that claim.

And the implications go beyond Peña Nieto’s reputation.

First, this implies a reevaluation of the tenor of U.S.-Mexico ties. Border security has long been a hot-button issue—and one that’s gotten particularly high media play in recent weeks. But as the Mexican security apparatus takes a hit, its capacity is called deeply into question. Bilateral security cooperation through the Merida Initiative has in recent years been the lynchpin of U.S.-Mexico relations—but how do the two move forward from El Chapo’s escape?

Second, this makes the future of U.S. efforts in Mexico’s neighborhood murky. The Obama Administration recently requested US$1 billion in funding to address the root causes of crime in the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras), insecurity, and mass migration in Central America.

On one hand, El Chapo’s escape is a painful reminder of the need for such assistance, given the sorely lacking security infrastructure in the region. But on the other hand, his escape may make lawmakers here in Washington hesitate before approving massive funding for a region riddled with corruption and criminal activity. So the implications of his escape extend beyond Mexico into the Central American countries to the south. (And this is sure to play out in tomorrow's confirmation hearing for current assistant secretary and newly nominated ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson.)

It’s always tempting to romanticize the great escape. And El Chapo is the ultimate escape artist. But however impressive and however sexy his flight might seem, it’s important to remember that it’s a symptom of a deeply ailing region, where corruption and impunity trump justice and the rule of law.

Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Carl Meacham