The worst thing Mexico could do in the wake of El Chapo's prison break

Joaquin El Chapo GuzmanReutersJoaquin Guzman (L), the leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, is seen next to an unidentified man.

For the second time in 15 years, Joaquín “El Chapo,” or “Shorty,” Guzmán Loera, has escaped from prison. And how Mexico responds could determine whether drug-related violence gets even worse than an already dire situation.

El Chapo ran Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, arguably the most powerful drug-trafficking organisation in the world.

At this point, however, El Chapo’s involvement matters little to the organisation’s success, according to the Brookings Institution’s Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert in organised crime with specialisation in Mexico.

“[El Chapo] managed to institutionalize a power succession system way beyond him,” she told Business Insider. “The result … is that they don’t rely on him.”

But that doesn’t mean Mexico will ignore the escape. His brazen move — using an underground tunnel that likely took a year to build — deeply embarrassed the country, especially President Enrique Peña Nieto. But if Peña Nieto pursues El Chapo’s recapture too aggressively, the situation could worsen.


Where I think violence can possibly escalate is if the Mexican government tries to prove they are doing everything they can to recapture him,” Felbab-Brown said.

Considering that violence, much of it drug-related, is the key factor in a political and economic crisis for the president, experts have called El Chapo’s prison break “almost Mexico’s worst nightmare.”

Naturally, everyone wants the kingpin back behind bars.

But “just hit[ting] the Sinaloa cartel without thinking,” as Felbab-Brown put it, could potentially destabilize its areas of influence and open them up to rivals — more violent, less tactical ones.

Take Los Zetas, for example, another large drug trafficking organisation in Mexico, which Felbab-Brown categorizes as “more brutal, more vicious than anyone else.” Members often carve Zs, the calling card of the cartel, into the abdomens of their victims.

“Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel have been far better able to calibrate their violence while vying local support,” Felbab-Brown said. “Yes, they kill people. But they would never engage in the most gruesome and terrible crimes.”

Weapons Los ZetasJorge Lopez/REUTERSWeapons are displayed on the floor before being presented to a judge as evidence during a trial against nine alleged members of the Zetas drug cartel in the Supreme Court of Justice in Guatemala City, January 30, 2014

After El Chapo’s second arrest, Peña Nieto said a

nother escape “would be more than regrettable; it would be unforgivable for the government to not take the precautions to ensure that what happened last time would not be repeated.” And already, the Mexican government has offered a $US3.8 million reward for his capture — $US2.8 million more than the most expensive criminal on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list.

Thus far, however, Mexico has refused US help in securing the world’s most notorious drug lord a third time. This not only highlights the deterioration of US-Mexico relations, but may also show Mexico’s desperation to handle its business independently.

El Chapo’s second capture occurred as a result of US efforts, according to Felbab-Brown — a joint operation between Mexican marines and the Drug Enforcement Administration. “Afterward, the Peña government started to embrace [El Chapo’s] capture as the hallmark of the war against the cartel, especially because they had made little progress,” Felbab-Brown said.

Experts, however, knew his absence wouldn’t curb the drug trade. In fact, one month after El Chapo’s second arrest, the narcotics trade continued with no change, according to Forbes.

Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto gestures during the 37th session of the public national security council in Mexico City December 19, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso (MEXICO - Tags: POLITICS)Thomson ReutersMexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto gestures during the 37th session of the public national security council in Mexico City

Regardless, now that El Chapo has slipped out of the president’sgrasp once again, Peña Nieto has a “tremendous opportunity to show how effective [he is] in going after the drug cartels,” Felbab-Brown added.

El Chapo’s successors, however, make that task even more difficult than usual.

“[El Chapo] was underground since his previous escape and still provided strategic advice to his lieutenants and deputies,” Felbab-Brown said. “He won’t be operating openly now.”

“There are few drug trafficking groups,” she added, “that ever manage anything of the kind.”

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