Small Wars Journal

What Can a Country Do When its Most-wanted Man Escapes From a Maximum Security Prison - for the Second Time?

Mon, 07/13/2015 - 2:49pm

What Can a Country Do When its Most-wanted Man Escapes From a Maximum Security Prison - For the Second Time?

Malcolm Beith

On Saturday, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmín Loera, the alleged head of the Sinaloa cartel, fled Altiplano prison in a 1.5 km-long tunnel that led directly to his cell. Guzmán had escaped before, in 2001, from Puente Grande, allegedly in a laundry cart. He had eluded justice until 2014, when the authorities finally caught up with him.

The details of the latest escape have caught the mainstream media’s attention, unsurprisingly. So too, has the fact that President Enrique Peña Nieto and other officials swore that Guzmán would never escape. Much has been made of the fact that Guzmán — or at the very least, people working on his behalf — managed to construct tunnels in plain sight, beneath the noses of the guards and perimeter security.

The real issue, however, is whether the Mexican public and authorities can tolerate such a setback. Reforms to the judicial system and police under Peña Nieto have been slow. Under his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, anti-corruption drives resulted in the ouster of several top officials, including the drug czar. But while those efforts were clear signs of progress, they also undermined the public’s faith in its institutions. Satire proved the most useful tool for journalists aiming to critique the government at the time, with few media taking the side of the president or the authorities.

It has become tradition in Mexico to mock the authorities, and in some instances, to mythologize the likes of Guzmán through songs and tall tales or rumors on social media. Some officials deserve mockery; most do not. My hope is that in the aftermath of this escape, serious reflection will take place. Already, I’ve noticed less of the standard.

humor on social media and more signs of despondency. That’s a good thing. Because what’s going on in Mexico is tragic and not amusing in even the most ironic way.

What now? One can be for or against the drug war as we know it — it’s impossible to argue that the war on drugs doesn’t have its faults — but it’s the only real policy we have to this day. We must continue to treat addiction, and attempt to curb consumption in the United States and Western Europe. Human rights commissions in Mexico must be allowed to assess the police and prisons regularly. We should continue to give agents from the US Drug Enforcement Administration more and more leeway in working on the ground with their Mexican counterparts. The same applies to agents from the IRS and Treasury Department who can and have gone after the cartel’s money — the only real way of breaking up their networks. We don’t necessarily need more border security, we need smarter border security — agents that look for the big shipment rather than stopping the Trojan Horse who comes in with a few kilos of marijuana. We need better education programs for our kids — “Just Say No” Just Didn’t Work.

In specific cases like that of Guzmán, the military should be used to guard the prison in question, not some low-paid sentries who are at worst, more easily corruptible, and at best, may not know to whom or how to blow a whistle when and if necessary. Mexico must admit it needs help, and be willing to accept it, even if its ego is bruised. The United States must continue to admit its co-responsibility, and ignore comments like those by Donald Trump that pander to the lowest common denominator.

What Guzmán will do now will likely be a key factor in how the future of Mexico’s drug war plays out. Will he attempt to become the Sinaloa cartel leader once again, and flaunt his impunity? Will he retire to the mountains of Sinaloa to quietly live out his days with his family? Will he hide in a major city like Guadalajara or the capital and wait until the opportune moment to launch an assault on his rivals?

No one knows, nor can we pretend to read his mind. In researching my book on Guzmán, The Last Narco (Grove Press, 2010), I tried to piece together a portrait of the man, but reliable sources were difficult to come by, and there is much more myth available than fact. He is something of an enigma, and clearly wants it that way. If he chooses to launch a war for control of the nation’s lucrative drug routes, however, we can be sure of one thing: Mexico will suffer more innocent casualties on the same scale that we have seen over the past decade.

It’s time for Mexico and the United States to act in this respect, and act fast. We know what could come. We should be prepared, prepared to help those who need our help the most, in the most pragmatic and realistic manner possible.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Malcolm Beith is a freelance journalist based in Washington DC, focusing on conflict. He is the author of The Last Narco (Grove Press, 2010) and “Hasta El Ultimo Dia,” (Ediciones B, Mexico, 2012) He has a Master’s Degree in War Studies from the University of Glasgow, and maintains contact with official sources in Mexico, the U.S. and elsewhere. A former Newsweek general editor, he has written for Janes Intelligence Weekly, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Sunday Times, National Catholic Reporter and World Politics Review.