The news was both incredible and yet somehow predictable. Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán-Loera, who notoriously disappeared from a maximum security prison 14 years ago, had pulled off another Hollywood-style jailbreak.
Recaptured by the Enrique Peña Nieto administration in February 2014, the Sinaloa Cartel kingpin fled Altiplano, supposedly the country’s most secure detention facility, on July 11 through an elaborate underground tunnel.
The sensational escape – undoubtedly with the complicity of senior prison officials, if not high-ranking security personnel – is another blow to the credibility of President Peña Nieto, now midway through his six-year term. It follows recent crises in the states of Michoacán and Guerrero as telling signs of the weakness of his public security policy.
Yet it should also prompt further questions. Not only how did El Chapo escape, but why does the Mexican government appear powerless in the face of such organizations?
Corruption and Organized Crime
The country’s drug cartels have been center stage since 2007 when Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, declared a military crackdown on organized crime. Since taking office in 2012, the current administration has largely downplayed the security threat, shifting their focus to economic reforms. Yet atrocities and scandals linked to such groups continue.
Joaquín Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel is widely considered to be the largest criminal network in the Americas. It supplies narcotics not only to the U.S., but increasingly, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Its various allies and offshoots have also been linked to the trafficking of minerals, firearms, and human beings. The emphasis on the drug war in Mexico obscures the fact that such groups are now significant players in the country’s economy more generally.
Mexico’s oil and gas industries have provided a particularly lucrative investment area with public contracts, private security services, and the theft and smuggling of hydrocarbons all activities in which armed groups have shown their hand.
In 2013, an executive for the multinational steel manufacturer ArcelorMittel was murdered after denouncing illegal mining operations by such groups in the state of Michoacán. The local mafia, the Knights Templar, were later accused by federal authorities of controlling or taxing roughly 50% of iron ore shipments to China.
The depth and expansion of criminal activity in Mexico have been neglected by the current government as they seek to woo foreign investors. That corruption, extortion, and the threat of violence have likely stunted investment produces a Catch-22 for policymakers – a thriving economy would weaken the hold of criminal groups over the country’s communities, yet potential players are deterred by a state that seems incapable of consistently upholding the law.
“A country without comprehensive policy,”
Kidnapping and extortion occur on a daily basis in some parts of the country. Only some 2% of crimes result in a conviction. A much-touted judicial reform passed by the Mexican congress in 2008 has largely gone unimplemented amid political wrangling.
Furthermore, an attack on corruption and the financial networks surrounding such organizations is still pending despite numerous calls from international allies for a more integrated approach. The reality is that Mexico remains a country without a comprehensive policy to tackle organized crime.