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 have a functioning criminal justice system, and it must have effective laws that allow it to confiscate the assets and wealth of the person in question. Mexico has neither. The United States should do what it can through a re-invigorated Mérida Initiative, the multi-billion dollar U.S. State Department–led partnership launched in 2008 to disrupt organized criminal groups and promote reform, to help Mexico strengthen its institutions. But until Mexico has an effective criminal justice system, the country should extradite kingpins such as Guzmán to the United States.
In fact, after Guzmán’s capture in February, that is exactly what many believed would happen. He has been indicted on charges in at least seven U.S. federal jurisdictions, including charges of drug trafficking and conducting a criminal enterprise. The United States informally urged Mexico to hand him over soon after his arrest, and it submitted a formal extradition request in January 2015. Had he, in fact, been sent to the United States, he would likely still be behind bars in a secure U.S. federal penitentiary with many more years left to serve. Yet after Guzmán’s arrest, Jesús Murillo Karam, who was Mexico’s attorney general, argued that extraditing Guzmán was “out of the question” for reasons of national sovereignty. The real failure behind his escape is not one of concrete and security cameras, but Mexico’s weak institutions and the ruling party’s misguided and outdated notions of sovereignty that led it to place politics over security.
Voluntarily extraditing Guzmán to the United States would not have threatened Mexico’s sovereignty. The real challenge to the country comes from the handful of vicious and powerful criminal organizations, commonly called the cartels, of which Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel is the largest. (In fact, it is the most powerful criminal organization in the world.) Not only do these organizations corrupt all levels of the Mexican government, they effectively control sizeable chunks of Mexican territory, including parts of the states of Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, and until recently, Michoacán. The violence linked to the cartels is incalculable, but rough estimates place the death toll during the last decade at over 120,000. The murder of 43 students in the state of Guerrero is only one grisly manifestation of a plague of organized crime.
As powerful as the cartels are, though, they are not impossible to destroy. As the case of Colombia demonstrates, the threat they present to legitimate government institutions can be eliminated. One of the most important factors in Colombia was Bogota’s decision two decades ago to extradite to the United States drug kingpins and other key players. Examples include the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers, Fabio Ochoa, and Carlos Lehder. Once these men were removed, the organizations they headed fell like houses of cards. Although drugs are still trafficked through Colombia, the once-feared Medellín and Cali cartels are things of the past and their former territories, Medellín and Cali, are no longer world capitals of murder and kidnapping.
Just as Guzmán’s escape is a stark reminder of how powerful criminals undermine Mexico’s institutions, it also serves as a unique opportunity for the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto to step up to the challenge. Mexico would do well to take a page from Colombia’s playbook. When the police recapture Guzmán, Mexico should promptly extradite him to the United States. Mexico has sent hundreds of drug traffickers and other criminals to the United States over the past ten years, including kingpins and high-level cartel players, such as Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the head of the Gulf Cartel, who before his extradition continued to control his organization from behind bars in Mexico. Cárdenas Guillén is now serving a lengthy sentence in U.S. custody and is no longer able to lead the Gulf Cartel. In other words, extradition was an effective way to disarm him by cutting him off from his networks. Taking Cárdenas Guillén and others out of the picture could give Mexico some space to reform its capsized and sinking criminal justice system.
Given the hundreds of other criminals that Mexico has sent to the United States, its failure to extradite Guzmán has led cynics to claim that the Mexican government is giving favorable treatment to the Sinaloa Cartel, over its rival cartels. Indeed, many of those extradited or killed have been leaders of competing cartels. Such a policy might be a pragmatic divide-and-conquer strategy, but some in Mexico believe that the government may be actively protecting the less visibly violent Sinaloa Cartel on the misguided theory that it can control it. The cynics are wrong; even so, Guzmán’s prompt extradition would go a long way to putting these damaging rumors to rest.
Unfortunately, although Guzmán may be Mexico’s most famous criminal, he is only one of about two dozen leaders and top lieutenants who are essential to the cartels’ survival. While waiting for the recapture of Guzmán, Mexico should get on with the extradition of other drug lords, including Miguel Treviño Morales, the former leader of the hyper-violent Zetas, and Hector Beltrán Leyva and Edgar Valdez Villarreal (a.k.a. La Barbie), two of the key players in the Beltrán Leyva organization. Their extradition is currently pending.
At the same time, Mexico should prioritize key reforms to its criminal justice system. These include the professionalization of the state police and the institution of greater transparency in prosecutions through an adversarial system (with the attendant training of prosecutors and judges). It should also institute anonymity for judges, as Colombia did to protect its judges from intimidation, and other anticorruption best practices, including the vigorous prosecution of government officials who accept bribes from organized criminals. Extradition will be essential to breaking the cycle of corruption and giving these reforms a fighting chance.
There is no question that the reforms will take time and that Mexico has a long way to go before it achieves an effective criminal justice system. Just as Guzmán’s escape is a stark reminder of how powerful criminals undermine Mexico’s institutions, it also serves as a unique opportunity for the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto to step up to the challenge. When Mexico has an effective criminal justice system, it will no longer need to extradite its criminals—and even better, it will no longer be held back by them.