Mexican manhunt for escaped kingpin 'El Chapo' – could his cartel revive?

Joaquin Guzman was arrested last year, boosting the anti-drugs credentials of President Enrique Peña Nieto. His escape is a blow to the president and a potential boon for the kingpin's narcotics cartel. 

Tomas Bravo/REUTERS
Policemen check vehicles at a checkpoint outside the Altiplano Federal Penitentiary, where the drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman escaped from, in Almoloya de Juarez, on the outskirts of Mexico City, July 12, 2015. Mexico's most notorious drug lord, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, broke out of a high security prison on Saturday night for the second time, escaping in a tunnel built right under his cell, and heaping embarrassment on President Enrique Pena Nieto. The kingpin snuck out of the prison through a subterranean tunnel more than 1 mile long that ended in a building site in the local town, National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido told a news conference on Sunday.

The brazen escape of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman from a maximum security prison in Mexico Saturday could foreshadow the resurgence of his Sinaloa Cartel and derail the government's anti-narcotics efforts for the remainder of President Enrique Peña Nieto's term.

Guzman, the most notorious of Mexico's drug cartel leaders, escaped the Altiplano, the country's highest security prison, via a nearly mile-long tunnel running from the prison's shower room to an abandoned building in a residential neighborhood. The tunnel, which the Associated Press writes was built over the last year, included sophisticated ventilation, lighting, and a motorcycle on rails that traveled the length of the tunnel.

The Mexican government has launched a manhunt for Guzman, shutting down the national airport and combing the area around the prison. Some 30 prison officials are being questioned in relation to his disappearance, his second escape from prison having originally fled captivity in 2001. The episode is a major black eye for Mexican officials, both in the country's security wing and for the presidency, writes Ioan Grillo, author of "El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency," for Time Magazine.

“I was flabbergasted that there wasn’t more care of Chapo Guzmán in the prison,” says Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former member of the federal intelligence agency. “Peña Nieto seriously underestimated Chapo. But this also shows a lot of institutional weakness. To make this escape, Chapo and his men would need plans of the prison. Where would they get those?”

Guzman's new freedom could give new life to the Sinaloa group, which appeared be a spent force upon his arrest in 2014, reports Patrick Corcoran of Insight Crime, a website dedicated to monitoring crime in the Americas. Mr. Corcoran writes that Guzman's recent capture had been the crowning achievement of a long, successful campaign by President Peña Nieto's government to imprison drug kingpins and degrade their operations. Yet that success left Guzman's rivals much weakened, opening the door to a potential Sinaloa resurgence. "Logic suggests that this is the perfect time for Guzman to rebuild his group’s hegemony, and swoop into areas where it had previously lost influence," notes Corcoran. 

Unlike the last few years prior to Guzman’s arrest, the Sinaloa Cartel does not have any adversaries of comparable power. Its foremost rivals -- the Zetas, the Gulf Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, the Beltran Leyva Organization, and the Knights Templar -- have been even more buffeted by government pressure than has Sinaloa. The arrests and deaths of leaders of these potential counterweights have served as the fodder for countless triumphant press releases from the current administration of Enrique Peña Nieto and the previous administration of Felipe Calderon. Without them around, there is no group in Mexico that has comparable stature to the Sinaloa Cartel nor its dual leaders [Guzman and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who is still at large].

Insight's Steven Dudley in a separate article adds that "in the short term, Guzman’s escape is more of a political than a security question." Peña Nieto's presidency has been mired in scandal, but it had been able to chalk up its anti-cartel efforts as a success. El Chapo's escape "has the potential to reverse that sentiment completely. Unless the Mexican government recaptures Guzman quickly, his escape will overshadow all those other success stories and give the appearance that the will of the president has dissipated."

The escape could also paralyze the presidency on the security front for Peña Nieto’s three remaining years in office. The agenda is full: among other projects, the president is trying to purge police units and restock others; and his government is continuing the long process or moving the justice system from the inquisitorial to the accusatory system....

Guzman's escape also has major ramifications for US-Mexico relations. US authorities have long demanded Guzman's extradition to face charges in American courts, where the Sinaloa Cartel's power and influence would be mitigated. But Mexican officials refused and said Guzman would face justice in his native land – a promise that could now go unrealized.

"He ought to have been housed in an American prison," [Peter Bensinger, a former administrator of the DEA] said. "Mexican authorities will come in for tremendous criticism, as they should."

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