Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán’s second stint in prison lasted just over 16 months. Captured in Sinaloa in February 2014, El Chapo was the crowning achievement in a “kingpin” strategy that the Mexican government has been pursuing against the cartels.  According to the “kingpin” strategy, taking out the leaders of the cartels is supposed to reduce their effectiveness and erode them to the point of paralysis.

The exact opposite has happened, as the cartels have simply atomized, forming smaller, more discreet groups that are harder to combat (though some of this may simply be a beneficial–to the cartels–byproduct of infighting, the fact remains that the atomized, cellular organization that is increasingly adopted by guerrilla and terrorist organizations is much more resilient than a hierarchical setup, a fact that the cartels appear to be taking advantage of).  Now the strategy, and the political capital that President Peña Nieto has hoped to build up from the capture of El Chapo, La Tuta, and Z42, have received a massive black eye.

At 2052 on Saturday, July 11, video surveillance observed El Chapo entering the shower enclosure in his cell in the Centro Federal de Readaptación Social núm 1, “Altiplano,” the maximum security prison where he was sent following his 2014 arrest.  That was the last he was seen.  Guards entering the cell found a 50cm by 50cm hole in the floor of the shower area, opening on a 10m ladder that led down into a tunnel.  The tunnel led 1.5 kilometers out of the prison to a farming area in the Santa Juanita area, southwest of the prison.

According to Borderland Beat, locals were hired to make the excavation, and said they were paid very well.  The tunnel exit was disguised by building a house over it, which locals report was built in about three months.  Tunnelling is nothing new; the Japanese Army tunnelled like moles, as did the Vietcong and the NVA.  The US/Mexican border is riddled with narco smuggling tunnels.  A very similar prison break, albeit freeing 500 prisoners instead of just one, happened in Kandahar in 2011.  The Kandahar prison breakers even started their tunnel camouflaged by a house, just like the Sinaloan narcos who sprang El Chapo.

El Chapo bribed his way out of prison the first time in 2001.  He is now the only narco to have escaped from two maximum security prisons, and, according to Mexican authorities, the first to escape from Altiplano.  The guards who were responsible for him were immediately taken into custody by SEIDO (Subprocuraduria Especializada en Investigacion de Delincuiencia Organizada, the chief Organized Crime office in the country’s justice system) for questioning.

President Peña Nieto, who was en route to France at the time of the escape, described it as, “an affront to the Mexican people,” and swore that El Chapo would be quickly recaptured.  A massive manhunt is presently underway for the capo, who is now the only major drug lord of a big cartel at large.  The extent of the planning and preparation for this escape, however, would suggest that it is unlikely that he’ll be easy to recapture, especially once he gets back into the Sierra Madre in Sinaloa.

The US had requested El Chapo’s extradition, but the Mexican government refused, counting it a point of pride to try and imprison him in Mexico.  However, there are those who suspect that the reason for their reticence in extraditing him was to avoid some of the cartels’ influence in the higher levels of government coming to light in the US.

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The escape has a number of potential ramifications.  For one, it suggests that the Sinaloa Cartel has not been weakened as much as believed following El Chapo’s capture in February of last year.  They obviously still had the organization and resources to launch an extremely complex prison break.  Insight Crime also points out that El Chapo’s return may well herald a new era of expansion of the Sinaloa Cartel, especially as many of its rivals have splintered or been supplanted in the last year and a half.

On the other hand, bringing the atomized remains of the cartels back under one roof might not be all that simple, and may in fact prove counterproductive.  Sinaloa has been as successful and resilient as it is because it is more of a Federation (in fact, until recently it was referred to as the Sinaloa Federation), a network overseen by El Chapo and his people rather than an empire lorded over by a single kingpin.  What may happen is more in the way of networking among the drug trafficking organizations to smooth their own relations, while organizing better against the government security forces.  Time will tell.

There is another factor, that has been touched on, but not thoroughly explored by the major analysis.  That is the effect on the government’s counterinsurgency (though they’ll never call it that) operations against the cartels.  Most of the articles discussing this escape have mentioned the disgust of the regular people asked about the escape.  “This is our national security,” one local who lives near Altiplano is quoted as saying.  Peña Nieto’s credibility has taken a big hit.

But it’s worse than the reputation of the politicians in Mexico City.  The Mexican people, particularly the rural people who live in cartel territory, are caught in a similar situation to the regular population in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  On the one side, they have an often brutal, corrupt military and law enforcement machine that is as likely to murder and extort the locals as they are to go after the narcos.  On the other side, they have the narcos, with a justified reputation for terror and murder.

This escape, demonstrating as it does the impotence of the government to hold its enemies even in maximum security, is likely to increase the chances that the people will cooperate more with the narcos to stay alive than with the police, Army, or Marines, even if they hold the narcos in contempt (while many regions hold the narcos as folk heroes, not all do).  This is a huge I/O and counterinsurgency setback.

(Featured Image Courtesy: thesource.com)