‘El Chapo’s’ Escape Undermines Official Promises of Security and an End to Impunity in Mexico

Joaquín Guzmán Loera — better known by his alias “El Chapo” or “Shorty” — has again lived up to his legend. With his spectacular escape from a high-security prison in Mexico, the notorious drug lord outdid his first jailbreak in 2001, when he reportedly snuck out hidden in a laundry cart. This time his exit from prison befitted a man reputed to head one of the world’s most powerful criminal organizations: through a tunnel dug under his shower, extending nearly one mile, complete with ventilation and lighting.

The sensational escape is an embarrassment for the government of Enrique Peña Nieto, which heralded Guzman’s capture as a major strike against organized crime in February 2014. Such a complex operation could not occur without professional assistance from both outside and in — plus large doses of willful ignorance. But it is far more than a blow to one president, government or political party. It further undermines Mexicans’ confidence that their public officials — from police to prosecutors to judges to prison wardens — can deliver on promises of security and justice.

A common thread runs between mass disappearances, such as the September 2014 kidnapping of 43 teaching students in Iguala, massacres such as the June 2014 killing of 22 alleged criminals by military forces in Tlatlaya and now the escape of “El Chapo” Guzmán. Repeatedly officials charged with obeying the law decided instead to flout or ignore it, whether out of greed, inadequacy, fear or revenge. Such deep-seated indifference to the essence of law — even by those who pretend to follow its letter — cannot be easily overcome. It will require decisive leadership willing not only to go after the criminals who defy the country’s institutions from without but also those who for decades have been steadily corroding them from within.

There is no doubt that both President Peña Nieto and his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, have managed to decapitate major criminal organizations. The current government, according to news reports, has captured more than 90 of the 122 most wanted criminals designated when Peña Nieto took office in December 2012. Some formerly hyper-violent, predatory cartels — such as the Zetas and the Knights Templar — no longer pose as fearsome a threat, though others, such as the Jalisco New Generation Drug Cartel, are beginning to fill the gap. These arrests are largely the work of federal forces, both military and police, whose ranks and budgets have expanded dramatically since 2006. The military has grown from about 250,000 to 274,000; the federal police from about 13,000 to more than 40,000.

“El Chapo’s” capture in February 2014 demonstrated how effective Mexican special security forces have become. Navy commandos took the Sinaloa cartel leader by surprise, without violence, following lengthy surveillance aided by U.S. drug agents. But it is unclear what impact, if any, his arrest had on his cartel or on Mexico’s illegal drug industry. Long on the lam, Guzmán had entrusted many operations to his lieutenants. The flow of drugs across the border continues, especially Mexican heroin to meet rising U.S. demand.

Enforcement is just one leg of public security policy, however, which must also stand on prevention, justice and rehabilitation. Most of the municipal police charged with preventing crimes remain weak at best, corrupt or infiltrated at worst. The courts are overwhelmed, incapable of providing timely, effective justice. Mexico has only four judges per 100,000 people, far fewer than the world average of 17 per 100,000, according to the Global Impunity Index. The prisons hold more than 230,000 inmates, 64,000 more than they were designed for. Many of these are suspects awaiting trial, whose detention is likely to turn them into hardened criminals, without marketable skills, upon their release. Even the high-security federal prison of Altiplano chosen to hold Guzmán was overcapacity, according to news reports, and only one out of five inmates there had been convicted.

The kidnapping of the 43 Ayotzinapa teaching college students in Iguala exposed the rot within municipal police forces, who not only failed to prevent but also took part in mass abduction and murder, according to federal prosecutors. The Tlatlaya case, in which 22 suspects died, some apparently executed, laid bare brutality within the country’s vaunted armed forces, three of whose members face murder charges.

But instead of pursuing broad investigations up the chain of command into the crimes of commission or omission that allowed such horrific acts to take place, the government seems to have pursued a strategy of containment. Only local officials face charges for the Iguala disappearances, despite the failure of state, federal and military officials, allegedly informed of the abductions, to immediately pursue the kidnappers. Even more disturbing are reports of a military cover-up in the Tlatlaya case and recent allegations that commanders issued written orders to “abatir or take down suspects during night-time operations. These actions discredit the many officers and public officials who do their work honorably — often in the face of great danger — to combat dangerous delinquents.

A massive police and military manhunt is underway for “El Chapo”; his recapture would help restore some credibility to an embattled government. But Mexican authorities should realize by now that even successful police and military operations will not bring an end to the impunity that infects government institutions. Thorough, impartial investigations, aired in open court and with firm sentences imposed for both operators and masterminds — no matter how powerful — are the only way to deter crime and restore faith in a state whose promises of security and justice still ring hollow to most of its citizens.

Mary Speck, Project director for Mexico and Central America at International Crisis Group.

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