By Laura Blume Contributing Writer July 25, 2015

On July 11, 2015, the infamous head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, escaped from Altiplano, a maximum security prison located about 90 kilometers west of Mexico City. The escape involved the kingpin riding a motorcycle down an elaborate, mile-long tunnel that started below the shower in his cell.

An effort is currently underway to re-capture El Chapo—but is that really where the Mexican government’s focus should be? Clearly El Chapo should not be allowed to happily retire to some tropical island, but imprisoning a single kingpin is not going to significantly alter levels of violence in Mexico. It is not going to address the systemic corruption that is plaguing the political, judicial, and law enforcement institutions. It is not going to improve the daily lives of millions who are being impacted by the ongoing war on drugs. Alternatives to the current militarized approach to the war on drugs need to be given serious consideration. Moreover, security will continue to prove elusive as long as corruption remains systemic in Mexico. Therefore, instead of chasing after El Chapo, Mexico should prioritize anti-corruption efforts such as increasing salaries for police officers and offering greater protection to journalists writing about corruption.

The importance of addressing corruption in Mexico is highlighted by the fact that the July 11th flight did not mark his first prison break. While the details of the recent incident have led to portrayals of El Chapo as a modern Houdini, it is more likely that deep pockets and government connections proved to be far more instrumental in his escape.

Such was the case in January 2001, when El Chapo escaped from the maximum security Puente Grande prison. The official and most popular version of that incident is that El Chapo was snuck out in a laundry cart. However, Anabel Hernández argues that the true story is that El Chapo “left Puente Grande penitentiary after paying a multimillion-dollar bribe to the family of President Fox, of the National Action Party (PAN).”1 Hernández adds, “the deal included systematic protection by the federal government of” El Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel.2

President Fox’s administration introduced the kingpin strategy, arresting prominent leaders of both the Gulf and Tijuana cartels. When President Calderón took office in 2006, he expanded and dramatically militarized Mexico’s response to the drug cartels. Due to his administration’s increased emphasis on leadership decapitation, many of the major kingpins were arrested or killed by 2012. El Chapo was the notorious exception, which fueled speculation of allegiances between the government and Sinaloa cartel. However, the Calderón administration maintained that their strategy was a blanket crackdown. Ultimately, whether by coincidence or intent, the strategies of both the Fox and Calderón administrations targeted El Chapo’s rivals and contributed to the Sinaloa cartel’s rising power.

Calderón’s successor, President Peña Nieto, took office in 2012, bringing the former hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary party back to office after a 12-year hiatus. During his campaign, Peña Nieto pledged to “prioritize the crimes that most affected ordinary citizens,” yet, extortions have increased and, according to non-governmental data sources, kidnappings have as well. Moreover, the reported drop in homicides appears to be likely due to the government manipulating the classification of “crime-related murders.” It seems that rather than significantly altering the policies of his predecessor, Peña Nieto has merely sought to control the media’s portrayal of the situation in an effort to draw attention elsewhere, the only result being less freedom of the press.

Currently, it is impossible to know how high up complicity extends between the government and cartels. But clearly El Chapo’s recent escape was not simply a matter of paying off a dozen prison guards. Systemic corruption has and will continue to undermine efforts to bolster citizen security in Mexico unless the following actions are taken to address the problem.

First, Mexico needs to clarify its goals in the country’s continued war on drugs. While drug trafficking in Mexico certainly preceded Calderón’s administration, the former president’s militarization of the response was unprecedented. Eight years and approximately 100,000 casualties later, the government’s goals are not clear. If the goal is to defeat the cartels, the efforts to do so resemble a very violent game of whack-a-mole: for every kingpin or mid-tier criminal lieutenant that is killed or imprisoned, several new ones pop up. Any goal of ending the flow of illegal drugs into the United States is so implausible that it is tragically almost comical. However, if the goal is lowering violence and improving the security situation for ordinary citizens as the Peña Nieto campaign promised, that is an achievable goal, but it requires a dramatically different policy approach.

In order to reduce violence there needs to be a shift away from the current militarized kingpin strategy towards a more holistic approach. Mexico must prioritize anti-corruption efforts and work to increase transparency. Guarding freedom of the press is paramount, but the government should also try to foster and support civil society organizations. Demilitarizing the situation will demand bolstering local police forces and while police corruption remains a grave concern, increased salaries would help to ensure that law enforcement officials aren’t incentivized to collaborate with or engage in organized crime. Finally, policy changes are needed on an international level, with the United States, the world’s largest consumer of narcotics, acting as a key player. Legalization should be on the table for discussion and greater emphasis should be placed on prevention and rehabilitation.

In explaining the change in U.S. policy towards Cuba, President Obama said, “When what you’re doing doesn’t work for fifty years, it’s time to try something new.” The same is true for the war on drugs: it has failed domestically and internationally and it is time to try something new.

1. Hernández, Anabel. (2013). Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers. Translated by Iain Bruce. Published by Verso. Page 5.

2. Ibid.

Laura Blume is a third year PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Boston University. She graduated from Simmons College in 2013 with a BA in Political Science and Public Policy. Her research focuses on citizen security issues in Central America and Mexico.

Photo of El Chapo by Day Donaldson, is licensed under CC-BY-2.5.