Last Saturday night at 8:52 p.m., Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as “El Chapo,” was seen for the last time inside a maximum-security prison in central Mexico. The country’s most notorious drug kingpin of the last two decades, El Chapo built a multi-billion-dollar narcotic enterprise and was regularly ranked among the 500 most influential persons in the world by Forbes. He was last spotted as he went to take a shower; security cameras never caught sight of him again. His escape challenges the credibility of Mexican authorities, especially President Enrique Peña Nieto.
The details of his breakout are still emerging, but what we know is unnerving. El Chapo escaped through a mile long tunnel whose construction, some estimates say, must have generated debris to fill up almost 350 trucks and taken almost a year to complete. The tunnel had electricity, ventilation and a motorbike specially adapted to transport the hardware needed for its construction. The prison is located near the industrial city of Toluca and close to a military base. It is hard to believe that he acted alone or that no one noticed the unusual activity in the prison surroundings. Instead, Chapo likely used the most influential coin in Mexican politics to escape: bribery.
This is not the first time El Chapo broke out of a maximum-security prison. In 2001, he left Puente Grande prison in western Mexico hidden in a laundry cart pushed by an accomplice. After that escape, he evaded authorities in the mountains of Sinaloa until last year when he was captured again amid huge fanfare by President Peña Nieto’s government. Back then, the government portrayed the arrest as an inflection point in the country’s long march to a rule of law-abiding state. Some U.S. authorities, fearing a new escape, reportedly suggested to their Mexican counterparts to extradite El Chapo to a U.S. prison. Mexican authorities dismissed the idea saying it was a matter of national pride to judge him at home. Jesus Murillo Karam, then Mexico’s attorney general, half-joked that the extradition would happen in three or four hundred years. ¨It would be unforgivable if El Chapo escapes again,” Peña Nieto said in February 2014.
Last week much of the public conversation in Mexico focused on the president’s state visit to France. Peña Nieto’s entourage numbered more than 300 people, including 40 high-level government officials. When news of the escape broke, every single high-level security official was on his way to Paris. As the news spread in Mexico, opposition leaders demanded the president return immediately and lead the unfolding security crisis. Peña Nieto refused to do so, arguing that his visit to France was of “historical” importance. He also hopes to attract French investments and create jobs back home.
However, it is unclear how the news will affect the perception that foreign investors have of the country. Chapo’s escape underscores that Mexican institutions are still weak and that the rule of law is a mirage. It will be a tough sell for Peña Nieto to convince foreign investors to bet dollars in a country where stability, let alone freedom from corruption, is still an abstract goal.
After Chapo’s escape, Mexican authorities deployed security forces to capture him. However, if history is of any guide, it is a hard bet to think that El Chapo will be captured anytime soon. In Mexico the line between criminals and politicians is blurry and Chapo’s network of influence likely reaches the highest levels of government. Some reports claimed that he had escaped in a small helicopter, thus violating the prison’s no-flying zone.
Chapo’s disappearance also calls into question Peña Nieto’s strategy in the war on drugs. Peña’s approach has not changed much from the open war that former President Felipe Calderón started nine years ago. The strategy is centered on the neutralization, whether by arrest or death, of drug lords, with the idea that the whole cartel will crumble after its head is severed. However, experience has shown that after a drug lord is killed, factions inside the cartel fight for control, unleashing violence of such intensity that municipalities are unable to stop. In some municipalities, police forces work for the cartels. Additionally, the strategy has failed to reduce consumption among addicts, whose purchases fund the power of the cartels.
Over the last nine months, Peña Nieto has suffered different hits in his image. From a corruption scandal involving his wife to the disappearance and presumed massacre of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, the president has been incapable of credibly addressing the crises he has faced. His popularity has slumped in the polls and he now has the highest disapproval ratings of any Mexican president in the last 15 years. El Chapo’s escape will only add to the growing perception of ineffective government action. While the country engages in a serious debate on security, the president will be dining with his French counterpart on the other side of the Atlantic. In times of crisis like this, the country needs a leader to step up and assure the people that peace, stability and security are the priorities of the government agenda. So far and in this respect, Peña Nieto has failed.