On the evening of July 11, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel, disappeared from his cell at a maximum-security prison in Altiplano, Mexico. It is no surprise that Guzmán, who pioneered the use of sophisticated tunnels to move drugs beneath the Mexican-U.S. border, escaped through one. The tunnel was reportedly a mile long and outfitted with a ventilation system, electricity, and even a motorcycle on rails to speed Guzmán’s exit. This wasn’t his first flight from a maximum-security facility, either. In 2001, he exited Puente Grande prison in a laundry cart, evidently aided by upwards of 70 prison staff and millions of dollars in bribes.
After that escape, Guzmán spent more than a decade on the run before he was arrested again last February. His capture was a major victory for the Mexican government; his breakout from prison 16 months later is a colossal embarrassment. Even worse, it is a major blow to Mexican citizens’ confidence in their government and institutions, and it demonstrates just how far the country still has to go to establish a credible and functioning criminal justice system.
Guzmán’s disappearing act says less about the physical security of Mexico’s prisons than it does about the ability of powerful drug lords to reach nearly anyone through bribery, corruption, and intimidation. After all, Guzmán did not painstakingly cut his way free with power tools; he left Altiplano by way of a custom-built tunnel, the creation of which was aided by the criminally derived wealth that landed him on the Forbes wealthiest-persons list in 2009 and by his vast criminal network.
Indeed, his escape demonstrates what many on both sides of the border already knew—as things stand today, Mexico cannot successfully prosecute and incarcerate such a powerful kingpin. Its criminal justice system is too weak, and its top criminals remain above the law.
In order to bring down a major criminal like Guzmán, a state must
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