A Bittersweet Accomplishment: Rhetorics and El Chapo’s Capture

arturo-100x100by Arturo Mendoza


On the 8 of January 2016, at 19 passed twelve, justice prevailed. Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, the notorious drug lord that escaped from a maximum security prison in July 2015, was recaptured.

Just between 2006 and 2012, the war on drugs in Mexico cost the lives of more than 60,000 people. Killings, torture and disappearances haven’t stopped. Mexico has bled. Mexico has mourn. Mexico demands justice. In this sense, having brought Guzmán to justice was unquestionably an accomplishment. An important message lies behind his capture. No one is and should ever be above the law.

However, we are also compelled to examine the circumstances that forced Mexican security forces to pursue the criminal for several months, and the subsequent events to El Chapo’s newsworthy capture.

Enrique Peña Nieto, hitting his lowest approval rate in late 2014 (34%), wanted to communicate the good news himself. The president tweeted: ‘Mission accomplished: we have him. I would like to inform Mexicans that Joaquín Guzmán Loera has been arrested.’ The (in) formal communication of such an important matter was followed by triumphalist speeches and remarks. Once more, cabinet planets were spinning around the presidential sun with pride and satisfaction. On January 8th, the star that has repeatedly ran into difficulties during the past few years couldn’t be outshined. 

Unfortunately, the heroism that the federal administration tried to portray doesn’t match with the shameful records of forced disappearances, killings of elected mayors (approximately 100 mayors were victims of deathly attacks in the last decade*), drug-related violence, conflicts of interest and corruption.

Just to put an example, the year immediately turned red after Gisela Mota –Temixco mayor- was shot dead a day after taking office, presumably by members of the organised crime. Criminal networks haven’t stopped growing. Rival cartels fight each other for the control of distribution. It appears that Guzman’s recapture doesn’t really make a difference to residents in the violent states of Morelos and Guerrero. People’s fears and hopes are still in the air.

Yes, the ‘Black Swan Operation’ and the efforts of the security forces are commendable. Mexican intelligence played a crucial role to ascertain El Chapo’s whereabouts in the northern state of Sinaloa. However, it is worth considering that, probably, all these intelligence and technology could have been better used to prevent Guzman’s prison break in the first place. After all, the MISSION was to keep the criminal in prison. Failure to achieve this mission, according to President Peña, would have been ‘unforgivable.’ Well, now we know this wasn’t completely true.

It is out of question that corruption and impunity facilitated El Chapo’s escape last summer. The kingpin easily read the loopholes (i.e. underground radars), and definitely the construction plans, of the Altiplano complex. The prison that, believe it or not, will host El Chapo for a second time.

With the assistance of penitentiary authorities, Guzmán managed to escape through a 1,500m long, and 80cm wide, tunnel under the shower of his prison cell. The construction of the tunnel should have required the labour of approximately eight people during 503 days. Authorities calculated that the criminal invested $4,000,000 MXN (150,853 GBP) on the construction of this tunnel. Nevertheless, they failed to notice that something wasn’t quite right. Money came in, dirt went out, business as usual at the Altiplano.

México Evalúa, domestic think tank, argues that the administration of the overpopulated maximum security prison is far from being impeccable. On the other hand, the Commission of National Security stresses that the Altiplano complex attains to international protocols. The same protocols that were supposed to be fulfilled at the time of El Chapo’s prison break.

Despite the new security provisions that the government has taken (i.e. the prisoner is constantly moved from one cell to another, and lives under strict security measures and surveillance), we perceive the Altiplano complex to be vulnerable. Vulnerable to corruption and impunity. 

Guzman’s charisma and ability to buy loyalties or favours were the foundations of his illegal empire. Corruption and impunity are structural challenges to Mexican society that haven’t been overcome. In this sense, the Altiplano prison is still vulnerable. Guzman’s recapture wasn’t a ‘MISSION accomplished.’ It was just the epilogue of a narrative of failure and shame. It was a bittersweet accomplishment.

El Chapo’s unpredicted escape isn’t the only thing that could be read as a Hollywood script. The events that developed after his capture could also be worth a multi-episode opera soap. An article that was published by Rolling Stone Magazine on January 9th 2016, a day after Guzmán’s capture, revealed that the criminal met with Sean Penn, U.S. actor, and Kate del Catillo, Mexican actress, to discuss the possibility of having Penn conducting an interview to him in October 2015.

The Mexican security forces were hot on Guzmán’s heels. A face to face interview with Sean Penn wasn’t feasible. El Chapo rather agreed to record his answers to some of the actor’s question and to send the recordings to del Castillo, his trusted intermediary.

This article doesn’t intend to study the journalistic value of the interview. Penn couldn’t elaborate on any of the questions. Moreover, it appears that the article could have benefited from a good editing process. However, the text briefly depicts some of the structural challenges that, as previously discussed, were the root causes of El Chapo’s prison break. Corruption and impunity.

According to Penn, his trip to the jungle where he met El Chapo was possible due to many factors. Among these were: (1) an inside man that ‘provided notification when the military’s high-altitude surveillance plane’ was deployed and (2) the collaboration of soldiers at a military checkpoint. The authorities have not elaborated on these matters. The erosion of Mexican institutions has been progressive. High-level officials and the military aren’t free from fault. 

In this tenant, with the facts before and after Guzman’s escape on the table, I wonder if his capture, by itself, will stop the erosion of Mexican institutions. Moreover, I am compelled to ask my dearest readers the following questions: given the previous records, was it the best decision to put El Chapo in the same prison? Isn’t it wise to study the possibility of his extradition to the U.S., regardless the time and legal processes this could take? Perhaps the answers to these questions escape to the scope this article article, however the reader could possibly imagine that these aren’t particularly difficult.

The one thing that’s certain, is that Mexico has big challenges ahead. The same challenges that facilitated Guzman’s escapes back in 2001 and 2015. The challenges that still prevent to bring criminals and corrupt politicians to justice. The same challenges that transformed the President’s triumphalist remarks into void rhetoric and El Chapo’s capture into a bittersweet accomplishment.

*Asociación de Autoridades Locales de México (Association of Local Authorities in Mexico).
Image courtesy of Getty Image©

Read more on Rolling Stone

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