Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, one of the world’s most wanted men and the boss of the vaunted Sinaloa cartel, broke out of a Mexican prison in bold fashion in July.
Guzmán’s latest jailbreak follows a 2001 escape that reportedly saw him wheeled out of prison in a laundry cart.
To some observers, the reason why the Mexican government can’t hang on to Guzmán is simple: It doesn’t want to.
A ‘mitigating force’
Permitting the release of Guzmán, who has been described as a “mitigating force” in the Mexican drug trade, could allow the Sinaloa boss to bring some stability back to the country’s narco scene.
“When I first heard the news, I thought this is either a good thing or a bad thing,” a Mexican cartel operative told Ginger Thompson in the days after Guzmán’s escape.
“Either this is a sign of how far things in Mexico are out of control. Or this shows that the government is willing to risk a certain amount of international embarrassment in order to restore peace for Mexican people.”
In this account, putting up with the “embarrassment” of officials who seemingly ignored the sounds of construction work coming from Guzmán’s cell and who took 18 minutes to investigate his disappearance from prison cameras allowed the Mexican government to have a major cartel figure back in operation — hopefully to stem a growing problem.
According to the experts Thompson spoke with — a senior Mexican intelligence official, an experienced American counternarcotics agent, and the cartel operative — Guzmán’s absence had allowed new actors to bring rising levels of violence to Mexico.
In April, a CJNG ambush killed 15 police in Jalisco state; in May, the cartel staged 39 roadblocks throughout Jalisco state downed a police helicopter, killing six soldiers. The cartel was also believed to have infiltrated police forces in Jalisco.
CJNG and Sinaloa’s suspected cooperation on some matters (including on some aspects of Guzmán’s jailbreak) suggest that there could be some truth to the belief Guzmán can act as a moderating force, even if there are signs that the cartels — or elements within them — are clashing, with Sinaloa’s turf in Tijuana as a potential battleground.
But even if all that was needed is to bring some wayward factions within the cartels to heel, that’s likely still a task beyond the capabilities of Mexican forces.
“Mexico’s security apparatus is simply not ready to combat organised crime,” the Mexican intelligence officer told Thompson.
‘This is all some kind of ruse’
Suggestions that the government has cooperated with Guzmán to ease drug-war violence are based on more than just CJNG attacks in early 2015.
A hallmark of the war on cartels in Mexico was the kingpin strategy, which became closely associated with former Mexican President Felipe Calderon (2006-2012), and earned him criticism, as taking down cartel leadership appeared to stoke more violence.
“Whenever Calderon would take out a top guy, in the aftermath … what we would always see is some kind of internal struggle or some kind of new violence coming from other organisations trying to take advantage of the weakness of the cartel that got hit,” David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego, told Business Insider during a conversation about Mexico’s militarised response to crime.
Though current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has continued this approach, he “has been able to stave off kind of the worst aspects of the kingpin strategy, and its not exactly clear to anyone how or why that has been the case,” said Shirk, who heads USD’s Justice in Mexico project.
“People think that somehow there’s been a pact or a negotiation between the Peña Nieto administration and certain cartel organisations,” Shirk added, noting that there were the same suspicions about Calderon.
That Guzmán, a marquee capture for the Peña Nieto administration, was able to escape just 17 months after his arrest “fuels further speculation that this is all some kind of ruse,” Shirk said.
Mexico’s PRI and the narco underworld
The history of Peña Nieto’s political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), may also lead some to suspect that security policy isn’t the government’s only concern.
Peña Nieto took office in December 2012 as the first president from the PRI in 12 years.
His PRI predecessors ran Mexico as a de facto one-party state for most of the 20th century.
In that position, rather than working to eliminate the industry, the PRI permitted some elements of the drug trade to operate.
In the late 1940s, amid growing US pressure to fight drug trafficking, “it quickly became apparent … that PRI honchos … had no intention of striving to eliminate the drug business … [instead] establishing something of a public-private partnership” with cartels, as Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace report in their 2015 book, “A Narco History.”
The government’s periodic crackdowns, Boullosa and Wallace explain, helped centralize the drug trade in the hands of the most organised groups, among them the Sinaloa federation that Guzmán would come to lead in the 1990s.
And details that emerged shortly after Peña Nieto was elected president in July 2012 gave Mexicans a reason to believe his party still had active links to the narco underworld.
In August 2012, police in Spain assisted by the FBI apprehended four suspected Sinaloa cartel members, led by Jesús Gutiérrez Guzmán, ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán’s cousin, and among them was Rafael Humberto Celaya Valenzuela.
Celaya Valenzuela attempted to run as a PRI candidate for federal deputy in Sonora state in those same 2012 elections, a candidacy that the party tried to block and ended with Celaya Valenzuela badly defeated.
After his arrest, photos that Celaya Valenzuela had posted on Facebook that showed him with Peña Nieto were made public.
Celaya is also reportedly the nephew of Victor Hugo Celaya, an influential PRI figure in Sonora state and was appointed as general coordinator for the secretariat of agriculture shortly after Peña Nieto took office in December 2012.
The PRI insisted that there was no connection between Celaya Valenzuela and the president, and that the photo was a standard part of the campaign.
Celaya Valenzuela isn’t the only connection between the PRI and the Sinaloa cartel. Guzmán’s 2001 jailbreak was assisted by Dámaso López Nuñez, aka “El Licenciado,” a subdirector for security at Puente Grande.
López Nuñez, the son of Dámaso López García, a member of the PRI in Sinaloa state, also worked for the government in Sinaloa before joining the cartel, and is now reportedly a high-level leader for the Sinaloa cartel who was rumoured to be Guzmán’s successor after his arrest in February 2014.
López Nuñez is also suspected of stealing the blueprints of Puente Grande, which helped Guzmán break out of the nearly identical Altiplano prison earlier this year.
The misdeeds of López Nuñez and Celaya Valenzuela don’t prove that PRI national-level leadership is in league with Mexican organised crime, but they do indicate that the boundary between Mexico’s political class and the country’s criminal underworld is easily crossed.
‘A perverse game of interests’
“Agents I talked to tell me that Sinaloa has people in every branch of the government,” said David Epstein, whose recent article for ProPublica details efforts to bring down the Arellano Félix Organisation in what is now the Sinaloa cartel’s stomping ground in northwest Mexico.
“The people I spoke with who work in that world, both who were in the cartel as well as the agents in law enforcement, suggested … there has never been a single cartel as powerful in Mexico as Sinaloa is right now,” Epstein told Business Insider.
As Epstein’s story describes, the Sinaloa cartel rose to prominence in part because of US and Mexican efforts to bring down the Arellano Félix Organisation, an effort Guzmán and his associates assisted.
If, as Epstein details and as officials told Thompson, fighting the drug war requires shifting alliances between governments and whichever bad guy might be most helpful at that point in time, then the purported collaboration between the Mexican government and Guzmán may just be the latest partnership — one driven by political imperative rather than by a moral consideration.
“There’s no real fight against drugs,” the Mexican intelligence official, who claimed to have recently overseen negotiations with Guzmán’s son, Alfredo, told Thompson. “It’s all a perverse game of interests.”
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