What Does the Escape of El Chapo Mean to the United States?

By Seth Ferranti 08/24/15

The Fix talks to experts Malcolm Beith and Veronica Calderon about the U.S reaction to the escape, the Sinaloa Cartel, and El Chapo's Robin Hood reputation.

El Chapo Escape
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The escape of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman sent reverberations throughout the world and the international media just a little over a month ago. The daring and unexpected escape has been well publicized as authorities in both Mexico and the United States searched for answers. There’s been a lot of speculation as to how he accomplished this escape even though a tunnel was found shortly after his disappearance from Altiplano, Mexico’s only supermax prison.

But no matter how he accomplished what he did and who his accomplices were, the fact remains that El Chapo is free again. The second time he has been imprisoned and escaped the grasp of his keepers. It seems that being confined in a maximum security prison is just not in El Chapo’s plans. As the world's richest and most infamous drug dealer since Pablo Escobar, the Mexican drug lord does what he wants, when he wants. Checking out of prison like others check out of a hotel.

With his reemergence back into the world and inevitable ascent back to the top of the drug trade with the Sinaloa Cartel, a lot of questions remain to be answered. To get the answers, The Fix turned to experts Malcolm Beith, the author of The Last Narco, a book that covers El Chapo’s history, last prison escape and the hunt for him prior to this incarceration, and Veronica Calderon, a Mexican journalist with 12 years of experience at two regional Mexican newspapers and at El País in Madrid, the leading newspaper in the Spanish-speaking world.

We posed the questions that the world has been asking since this mesmerizing prison break. To many in his home region of Mexico, El Chapo is a modern day Robin Hood. In the Sierra Madre mountain region of Sinaloa, his word is law and he is cherished as a man of the people. A man who would challenge his government and who even has the brashness to challenge the mighty United States government with their multitudes of drug soldier cadres all calling for El Chapo’s head. With a big middle finger to the authorities who wanted him imprisoned, El Chapo has made history again and added to his mythical legacy, which seems more like a Hollywood movie than real life. 

Why do you think it took so long for El Chapo to escape?

Veronica Calderon: I wouldn’t really say that it took that long for him to run out of prison. He was in jail the last time around for seven years (1993-2001). In fact, Peña Nieto’s government only was capable to keep him in prison for a little more than a year. That said, it’s very likely that he was planning his runaway since day one.

Malcolm Beith: I don't think 14 months is that long when you consider where he was escaping from.

What do you think the impact of his escape will be? 

Beith: I think it's a clear blow to U.S.-Mexican law enforcement and intelligence sharing efforts. Whether or not it will impact the presidency of Enrique Peña Nieto remains to be seen. I'm hesitant to use this as a bellwether for the presidency—would we say Obama's presidency is at stake because of a shootout in Texas? Because of the killing of a young black man in Ferguson? It's a blow to the country, to security, but it's not all down to the president. 

Calderon: The first blow is for Peña Nieto’s administration. It’s a terrible mistake and blows up his image of a less corrupt Mexico. In the best scenario, it paints Mexican police as incompetent. The time it took to construct the tunnel took at least a year. And, obviously, it sends an idea that the Mexican government does not have control of their most secure prisons. And that is very worrying, considering that other powerful drug lords remain in the exact prison that Chapo escaped, like ‘La Barbie’, ‘El Z-40’ or La Tuta. Politically speaking, it’s a huge blow for Osorio Chong, one of Peña Nieto’s most important men in his cabinet and the guy who would replace him in case of the president's resignation. He is the Interior minister, one of the most important posts in Mexican government, and he gave a press conference that left a lot more questions than answers.

Why is El Chapo such a Robin Hood type figure in Mexico?

Beith: Chapo is like a Robin Hood figure in some parts of Mexico—particularly in Sinaloa, in the northwest, where he comes from—because he has basically become a symbol of hope where the government does little to help the people. He provides jobs—albeit illegal jobs—and helps keep security and peace in a volatile area. But it's largely a mafia-like arrangement—he runs his own little fiefdom and convinces locals that they need him. I think the Mexican people are waking up to the fact that he's nothing more than a criminal and a conman, and not a Robin Hood at all.

Calderon: Well, the Chapo's figure as a 'Robin Hood' is something other Latin American drug lords can easily relate to. The biggest of them all is Pablo Escobar, who was buried in a mass funeral with thousands of people weeping for his death. I'm not quite sure if Chapo has achieved that kind of popularity, but at least in his native Sinaloa, he is already a cult figure. There were even celebrations the day he escaped, as well some protests when he was detained a year ago. The reason behind the popularity of such characters is because they fill the voids where the government has failed. For example, it's a common practice that the local drug lords make some kind of contribution to their hometowns, like building schools, roads, churches or even stadiums. (Some members of Cartel del Golfo, which operates in Tamaulipas, even brought help to families who were victims of a hurricane a couple years ago.)

But what the latest Chapo escape did was really bring him up as a myth because he managed to fool the authorities, who have such a low popularity that it reflects another worrying symptom in Mexico. He is, for some people, someone to be admired or "looked up to" because he outsmarted the authorities. And that is alarming. 

Will the Sinaloa Cartel rise back to prominence?

Calderon: I don’t think they've lost it at all. We’re talking about a huge organization with a presence in dozens of countries, which controls the majority of drug trafficking to the U.S. and have even moved to other countries! Chapo’s time in prison may have given the Mexican government a unique opportunity to know how this sophisticated net works (El Mayo Zambada, Chapo’s number two, is on the run and has been all this time), but we do not know if that work was done or how it’s been used.

Beith: It’s quite possible, and already several experts are speculating that Chapo will retake control. I am not in a position to speculate without better evidence.

Will the U.S. step up their efforts to get him and prosecute him? 

Beith: Although he is high on their most-wanted list, I think it will be a matter of politics and priorities for the U.S. and Mexico. Catching Chapo and prosecuting him would look good—just as catching Osama bin Laden looked good—but it may not be their utmost priority.

Calderon: I'm pretty sure. El Chapo was, after all, the most wanted man in the world after bin Laden, before he was caught in February of 2014. And I also think it’s a priority for the Mexican government to work efficiently, and fast, to clean up this mess.

What will Mexico do now that El Chapo is free?

Calderon: Mexicans are, sadly, very used to this kind of situation. There are very, very, very few Mexicans that actually believe the Mexican government’s tale about Chapo’s escape in the first place. We live in a country with a 98% impunity rate in ALL crimes, and the skepticism is enormous. The most grave thing is that Chapo’s second escape has made him some kind of a “legend” and there is the risk that some Mexicans will start to view him as an “example” to break the law, when the Mexican government has failed to apply the law. The news of his escape was received with a (very Mexican) mix of irony and outrage.

Beith: In terms of the drug war, I think Mexican authorities will have to reconsider what their priorities are. Will they continue to highlight big captures? Big seizures? They're famous for showing off major arrests and vast amounts of cocaine and marijuana seized and burned. Or will they focus on the real problem, quelling the violence and keeping the streets safe for the average citizen? It's too soon to know what they will do.

Seth Ferranti has been a regular contributor to The Fix since 2012. He most recently wrote about crystal meth becoming the new crack. He also writes for Vice. He has a book out—The Supreme Team.

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at sethferranti.com. You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.