Double escapee Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán, the founder of the Sinaloa Cartel, has risen to become one of the world’s most powerful drug lords, with a billion dollar transnational empire. Prior to his latest capture in January 2016, El Chapo had operated with relative impunity, surviving Calderón’s ‘war on drugs’ unscathed, which conveniently wiped out most of his competition. This case study addresses the long-held suspicions that he received direct governmental protection during this time.
- Evidence has suggested that high-level politicians and military elites were complicit in providing El Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel with protection. Subsequently, President Calderón’s ‘war on drugs’ appeared to predominantly target El Chapo’s most powerful rivals, effectively paving the way for the Sinaloa Cartel to take over the strategic border city of Tijuana, Baja California.
- El Chapo is thought to have systematically bribed and coerced officials, army personnel and law enforcement agents to secure protection. The government’s inability to capture such a high-level criminal highlights a key vulnerability prevalent in the country: the influence attained by criminal networks, which, in addition to engaging in corruption, also apply a variety of intimidation tactics in order to evade the law.
In 1988, Guadalajara Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo was accidentally murdered in a botched assassination attempt at the Guadalajara International Airport, Jalisco (Fusion.net, 11.02.2013). Suspecting El Chapo’s involvement, Mexican authorities launched a manhunt, forcing the drug lord to flee to El Salvador. El Chapo was, however, apprehended in May 1993 by the Guatemalan military en-route to El Salvador before being extradited back to Mexico where he was sentenced to 20 years and nine months in prison on charges of drug trafficking, criminal association, and bribery (WSJ, 13.06.2009).
El Chapo was initially assigned to a strict maximum-security prison where he was kept in solitary confinement; however, without warning, he was transferred to the Puente Grande prison in Jalisco in November 1995 (Fusion.net, 11.02.2013). There, he remained in prison for another six years where he was able to live comfortably by bribing prison officials. He also continued to direct the Sinaloa Cartel in situ.
On 19th January 2001, El Chapo escaped from prison after reportedly issuing $2.5 million in bribes to federal prison guards and officials. Prison officials erased the surveillance footage, prompting observers to suspect that El Chapo had virtually walked out (WSJ, 13.06.2009). At the time, according to journalist Anabel Hernández, El Chapo escaped with the help of the federal government who provided him with a police uniform and helicopter for transportation. The official investigation, however, claims that he escaped in a laundry bin (Democracy Now, 27.09.2013). Criminal charges were eventually brought against 71 individuals who worked at the prison in connection with the escape (New Yorker, 05.05.2014).
As a result of his unimpeded escape, the then-PAN administration became the subject of allegations that they provided direct protection to El Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel (NDC News, 18.01.2011). Shortly after his escape, the US government issued an indictment and a $5 million reward for information leading to El Chapo’s arrest (the Mexican government also offered a reward of $2 million) (Forbes, 01.11.2012). These incentives, however, proved to be ineffective due to El Chapo’s far-reaching connections.
Mexican authorities came close to capturing El Chapo on several occasions; however, he always seemed to evade capture by a matter of hours. In some instances, even minutes. For example, the New Yorker (05.05.2014) reported that he was able to foil an attempt by the army in 2004 after receiving an advanced warning of the raid and fleeing his Sinaloa ranch on an all-terrain vehicle. Immediate suspicions pointed to a military tip-off.
Allegations of Protection
The Wall Street Journal (13.06.2009), reviewing a 2008 Mexican intelligence document, learned that for a number of years prior to his release, El Chapo regularly visited a remote ranch in the mountains of Chihuahua State to inspect his marijuana plantations. According to the newspaper, El Chapo was accompanied by a number of army personnel who were there to provide protection on at least three visits.
In 2007, El Chapo married the 18-year-old niece of a high-ranking Sinaloan army lieutenant (Emma Coronel) (The Star, 19.05.2012). High-ranking cartel members, local police officials and politicians were alleged to have attended the wedding. The army launched an operation to capture El Chapo at the wedding; however, he managed to escape hours before the operation took place. Again, this near miss fuelled allegations that a corrupt military official had tipped off El Chapo New Yorker (05.05.2014).
Likewise, the San Diego Red (30.04.2013) has highlighted suspected connections between the cartel and the Mexican army. The article – based on the allegations of Mexican journalist Jesus Esquivel – alleged that the US offered to launch an operation that would be almost guaranteed to capture El Chapo; however, the Mexican military refused to cooperate. Esquivel suggests that the army refused to participate because under the plan only US personnel would be involved.
Additionally, Jose Baeza, a DEA agent interviewed by Esquivel, stated that the US government passed on information to the Mexican authorities that would have led to El Chapo’s arrest on two separate occasions, but this too was ignored. The agent also confirmed popular suspicions that El Chapo received protection from various politicians at multiple levels of government.
The administration of Vicente Fox (2000-2006) was alleged to have actively targeted the Arellano Félix Cartel (or Tijuana Cartel), a policy that benefitted the Sinaloa Cartel to a considerable degree. With the arrest of Francisco Javier Arellano Félix in August 2006, the cartel was considerably weakened, allowing its Sinaloa rivals to expand into Tijuana – the strategic border city in Baja California that El Chapo had long sought to control (NBC News, 18.01.2011).
In an exposé by National Public Radio (19.05.2010), it was suggested that former President Felipe Calderón (in office 2006-2012) was selectively fighting the cartels and allowing the Sinaloa Cartel to operate relatively unimpeded. Evidence from the Mexican Attorney General's Office regarding the arrest of over 2,600 cartel members (2006-2010) revealed a disparity; members of the Gulf and Zeta cartels accounted for 44% of the overall arrests, whereas Sinaloa members only accounted for 12%.
Hernández argued that these statistics suggested that the Calderón administration adopted a policy aimed at protecting El Chapo rather than bringing him to justice. In an interview with National Public Radio, Howard Campbell, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, supported Hernández’ allegations, stating that although El Chapo may not necessarily have made a deal with either Fox or Calderón, individuals lower on the political hierarchy may have done.
Also according to Hernández, the Calderón administration knew the location of many of El Chapo’s properties since 2007, which could have easily allowed for successful operations to capture him. This is supported by the fact that a 2009 Wikileaks (26.10.2009) cable detailing a meeting between the US Director of National Security and the Mexican Defence Secretary shows that El Chapo would regularly move between 10 to 15 different locations to avoid detection, and was accompanied by up to 300 informants and bodyguards. The reticence of the authorities to launch an operation targeting the drug lord, Hernández claims, is a clear indication that he was being afforded high-level political protection (The Substance, 12.05.2014)
The Calderón administration was dealt a further blow in February 2012 when an investigation by the Mexico newspaper El Universal (13.02.2013) revealed that the government might have faked reports of El Chapo’s near capture. The then-Deputy Attorney General, José Cuitláhuac Salinas Martínez, released information about an operation that apparently failed after El Chapo cancelled a liaison with a prostitute. According to Martínez, police raided a mansion at the Los Cabos resort in Baja California on 21 February just one day after then US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton met with foreign ministers in the city.
However, when El Universal submitted a freedom for information request for more information on the operation, they were informed that the Federal Police had no record of such an operation. InSight Crime (13.02.2013) suggested that journalist Jaime Dettmer was privy to inside information from an unnamed source, who alleged that the Federal Police had alerted El Chapo hours before the operation. Dettmer was informed by his sources that the story of a near-miss operation was then leaked in order to mask the blunder and avoid embarrassment.
Hernández has named Genaro García Luna, Calderón’s former Secretariat of Public Security, as El Chapo's ‘protector at the apex of government’, stating that he was on the cartel’s payroll and even helped orchestrate the movement of drugs and money through some Mexican airports (The Guardian, 01.09.2013). In response to these allegations, García Luna threatened to have Hernández killed, prompting her to appeal to the National Commission of Human Rights who provided her with 24-hour protection.
Conclusion: A Cat and Mouse Circle
The case of El Chapo and his rise to global prominence highlights severe deficiencies in the application of justice and the accountability and transparency of decisions made by the country’s executive branch. Through an extensive network of bribery and intimidation, the drug lord was able to infiltrate the Mexican government at all levels of the political hierarchy, effectively guaranteeing protection from persecution from the government or criminal rivals for himself and his wider network.
With the alleged support of the successive PAN administrations, El Chapo saw his empire and personal revenue grow exponentially to the point that he was listed on Forbes' 2013 list of the world's most powerful people – ranking higher than the President of Mexico. However, with the return to power of the PRI in 2012, El Chapo’s fortunes were somewhat reversed. After finally accepting the assistance of US federal authorities on 24th February 2014, Mexican marines participated in a joint operation that resulted in the capture of El Chapo.
El Chapo’s second apprehension was considered a major victory for Mexican security forces and the Peña Nieto administration, given the drug lord’s legendary status across North and South America. El Chapo was seen as a figurehead or ‘godfather’ of Mexican organised crime, and was both highly respected and feared by ordinary citizens and his enemies. Due to his status, he was viewed as a priority target by Peña Nieto, who was intent on proving to the electorate that the PRI was no longer associated with corruption, but that it would strive to improve the country’s security environment. Thus, capturing the country’s most notorious, and allegedly untouchable criminal went some way to proving this commitment to change.
However, despite El Chapo’s second arrest, the Sinaloa Cartel remained the most powerful illicit network in Mexico, exemplifying the longevity of its various prolific sub-networks. The orgainisation’s board of directors remained intact and continued its day-to-day operations.
However, then came El Chapo’s third escape from a maximum security facility in Altiplano on 11th July 2015, dealing an even more significant blow to the Peña Nieto government. This time, El Chapo allegedly climbed down a 10 metre vertical shaft that had been built directly below the shower area in his cell. This connected to an underground tunnel, complete with lighting, ventilation and a specially modified motorcycle attached to rail tracks that was used to transport earth and tools (and possibly El Chapo himself on the day of his escape).
The tunnel emerged at a safe house approximately 1.5km away from the prison, from which El Chapo made his final escape. Once again, evidence arising from the initial investigation suggested that El Chapo has been able to co-opt the authorities in order to secure his freedom.
El Chapo was finally recaptured for the third time on 8th January 2016 in a joint Mexican Navy-DEA operation in Los Mochis, Sinaloa. As of August 2016, he continues to await extradition to the US.