One of the world’s most powerful and notorious drug lords, Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, better known as “El Chapo” (“Shorty”), has escaped from a Mexican prison. Again.
El Chapo was first arrested in 1993 on drug trafficking and murder charges in Chiapas, Mexico. He was sentenced to 20 years at a maximum security facility in Jalisco, but he escaped in 2001.
Legend has it that El Chapo hid in a dirty laundry cart and was smuggled out by corrupt guards, but another version of the story says that an actual SWAT team stormed the prison in order to liberate the jailed capo.
After his first escape, Chapo reasserted himself and his organization, the Sinaloa Cartel, as major players in the Mexican criminal landscape. By 2011, a “senior U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official” told Forbes that Chapo was “the leading drug trafficker of all time…the godfather of the drug world.”
Chapo’s rise to power after his 2001 escape coincided with three important and interrelated developments in Mexico’s crime-fighting strategy. The first was the ramping up of the “war” on organized crime, especially by using federal forces, including the army, in operations where local police seemed unable to provide adequate security.
The second development was a deepening of the “kingpin” strategy, whereby the top leaders of organized criminal groups were targeted for arrest – a practice that is popular for political reasons but in reality can have destabilizing effects, leading to increased crime and violence.
The third development was Mexico’s increasing reliance on U.S. assistance, both technical and financial, in pursuing its security agenda. The U.S. has spent billions on military and police assistance to Mexico over the past decade and has trained thousands of its security forces. Moreover, the U.S. government has put its own personnel on the ground in Mexico and maintains extremely close intelligence ties with its Southern neighbor.
As Patrick Radden Keefe reported in the New Yorker last year, the success of “The Hunt for El Chapo” depended heavily on this close relationship. The DEA appears to have provided much (if not most) of the intelligence that guided Mexican marines to El Chapo’s hideout in Culicán, where he was arrested on February 22 last year.
However, after less than a year and a half in prison, El Chapo has escaped again – this time through a kilometer-long tunnel reportedly equipped with air conditioning, lights and a motorcycle modified to run on a makeshift railway.
As was the case with his 2001 escape, there is little doubt about the complicity of prison authorities and other government officials in Chapo’s flight. A poll taken shortly after Chapo’s arrest last February showed that more than half of Mexican citizens believed the crime lord was more powerful than the Mexican government itself.
The U.S. Department of Justice released a terse statement after the first reports of Chapo’s latest escape began appearing in Mexican and international media on Sunday [July 12]. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that the U.S. “share[s] the government of Mexico’s concern” about Chapo’s escape and “stands ready to work with our Mexican partners to provide any assistance that may help support his swift recapture.”
The statement also points out that “[i]n addition to his crimes in Mexico, [Chapo] faces multiple drug trafficking and organized crime charges in the United States.” According to the State Department, Chapo was charged with drug violations, money laundering and racketeering in Arizona in 1993. He was also indicted on similar charges in San Diego in 1995.
Since his February 2014 arrest, many U.S. political leaders had called for Chapo to be extradited, but a formal request was only submitted earlier this year. Mexican officials claimed they would extradite Chapo to the U.S. only after he had served his time in Mexico – as Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam put it, “about 300 or 400 years later — it will be a while.”
Although the Mexican government repeatedly promised Chapo would not escape justice once again, their position predictably angered some American officials. One “U.S. law enforcement official” speaking to CNN said Chapo’s recent escape is “exactly why we argued for his extradition…If this guy can get out of prison it shows how deep the corruption is there.”
Despite their close cooperation on security issues, clearly the Mexican and U.S. governments do not always see eye to eye, especially when it comes to the complex topic of extraditing criminals wanted for crimes in both countries.
While the U.S. has criticized corruption and judicial dysfunction in Mexico, the Mexican government has increasingly questioned the U.S. practice of reducing the sentences of extradited criminals in exchange for information on other suspects, some of whom may have links to powerful political figures.
Honduras also recently passed a law allowing for the extradition of citizens charged with international drug trafficking and/or terrorism, but some analysts have criticized the move, raising questions about the message it sends regarding the state’s (in)ability to prosecute criminals. As in Mexico, there exists almost complete impunity in Honduras for even the most heinous crimes.
Mexico and Honduras are not the only example of U.S. extradition policies causing concern in its partner countries. Top leaders of the right-wing paramilitary group known as the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, have received reduced sentences for cooperating with U.S. authorities on investigations into Colombian drug trafficking suspects.
Like their Mexican and Honduran counterparts, some Colombian politicians have claimed that these policies encourage criminals to seek extradition to the U.S. rather than receiving justice in the countries where they committed their most serious crimes. Also like their Mexican and Honduran counterparts, many elite Colombians are suspected of having ties to the suspects being extradited.
In all three of these countries, the United States has provided extensive security assistance that has enabled its partners to enact heavy-handed, militarized approaches to crime and security. This has allowed countries like Colombia, Mexico and Honduras to become very good at catching suspected criminals, and in certain cases it has led to partial gains in citizen safety. However, in part because of U.S. extradition policies, some of these governments have not placed enough emphasis on improving their ability to successfully prosecute the highest-level criminals they capture.
The United States may have a short-term interest in extraditing top criminal suspects to its courts rather than seeing them escape justice. At the same time, this approach provides little incentive for its partners to tackle deeply-rooted problems in their political and judicial systems. Additionally, it could result in diplomatic friction and inhibit necessary cooperation on crime and security issues.
If El Chapo had been extradited to the U.S., his escape from prison would have been far less likely than his striking an eventual deal with U.S. prosecutors. He might have given up information on other persons and organizations under investigation by U.S. authorities in exchange for a more lenient sentence.
This might even had led to more arrests and extraditions of top criminals in Mexico. Or it might have exposed close links between Mexican elites and organized crime. Shortly after Chapo’s arrest last year, former DEA intelligence director Phil Jordan claimed that Chapo “contributed a lot of money to the campaign” of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Both the Colombian and Honduran elite likely have similar concerns regarding U.S. extradition and plea bargaining policies, and it may be for this reason that their public criticism of the United States in this regard has been relatively muted.
Still, in light of El Chapo’s escape, the U.S should weigh whether its interest in seeing criminals extradited to its own justice system might be interfering with its interest in helping its partners establish effective and sustainable judicial and political structures that would make extradition, and the political complications that often accompany it, unnecessary.