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Cartel leader "El Chapo" Guzmán's prison break is even worse than it seems

This 1993 photo shows Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the notorious leader of the Sinaloa drug trafficking cartel, who escaped from prison Saturday night.
This 1993 photo shows Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the notorious leader of the Sinaloa drug trafficking cartel, who escaped from prison Saturday night.

The last recorded sighting of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzmán, the notorious leader of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel and at the time an inmate of maximum-security Altiplano prison, was on the evening of Saturday, July 11. At some point after that, Guzmán opened a trap door in the shower area of his prison cell, climbed down a ladder, and then strolled to freedom through a 1.5-kilometer tunnel equipped with lighting and ventilation ducts.

The Mexican government has mounted a nationwide manhunt for Guzmán. But so far there is no sign of him. The man whom Mexican media once referred to as the "eternal fugitive" is on the lam again.

Although Guzmán's prison break seems like an exciting caper, the brazen escape represents a very serious problem for Mexico, one much larger than just him. El Chapo's capture and imprisonment was meant to be a symbol of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's willingness to tackle crime and corruption in Mexico. And so his escape, especially in circumstances that appear to have likely required extensive, long-term support from prison officials as well as outside accomplices, is a major embarrassment for Peña Nieto's anti-crime efforts. And not without reason.

It's not just this one prison break. In September, 43 Mexican students disappeared and are widely believed to have been murdered by a drug cartel at the behest of corrupt local officials. It was a major scandal, including for Peña Nieto's reputation as an anti-crime crusader. His credibility has also been shaken by corruption allegations.

For many in Mexico, then, El Chapo's escape is yet another way in which their government is too weak or corrupt to protect the interests of ordinary law-abiding citizens in the face of powerful criminal interests.

What El Chapo was supposed to symbolize

Mexico newspaper headlines el Chapo arrest

Mexican newspapers trumpeted "the fall of El Chapo" after Guzmán's arrest in 2014.  (ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP/Getty Images)

Guzmán has always been more than just an individual criminal. As the head of one of the most powerful cartels in Mexico, he has long been a symbol of the power that criminal organizations had achieved there. Politicians from Mexico's two leading political parties often accused one another of being beholden to the interests of El Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel as a way of implying that they could not be trusted to restore or preserve Mexican security.

And so when Mexican forces captured Guzmán, that was seen as symbolic of the government's willingness to take on cartel interests. That symbolism grew stronger when Guzmán was imprisoned inside the supposedly impregnable Altiplano prison, a special facility west of the capital that was specially designed to hold the country's most notorious drug lords.

He would not be escaping from prison hidden in a pile of dirty laundry this time, as he was rumored to have done when he skipped out of a jail in Jalisco in 2001. And the symbolism became stronger still when the Mexican government refused to extradite him to the United States to face drug charges, arguing that he would first face Mexican justice for his Mexican crimes.

But with Guzmán's escape, the power of that symbolism is taking on a different meaning — one that looks pretty bad for Peña Nieto's government.

El Chapo's escape is about more than just El Chapo

The president cannot restore Mexican security until he roots out cartel corruption in the government, military, and police, and he has been struggling to do so. Guzmán's prison break seems like a perfect symbol of the president's failure to fulfill that goal. The nature of the trafficker's escape — the planning, the excavation, the sheer structural expanse of it all — suggest that Guzmán escaped with the collusion of prison officials. Altiplano may have thick walls and high-tech security, but that's all useless if the prison staffers are willing to help the prisoners escape.

Likewise, the government's refusal to extradite Guzmán to the US now looks shortsighted at best, and perhaps suspicious at worst. Insisting that the kingpin face justice for his crimes in a Mexican court is less reasonable if the government can't actually manage to keep him in custody.

Publicly, US officials have expressed dismay at Guzmán's escape and promised assistance in the manhunt, but there is grumbling behind the scenes, with an anonymous DEA official telling the Washington Post that "obviously, we are extremely unhappy." The escape "will have a devastating impact on the relations between the United States and Mexico," Central American security analyst Steven Dudley wrote for Insight Crime.

All of that matters because Peña Nieto's political capital was already running extremely low following his government's botched response to the 43 disappeared students, and accusations that he and his wife had enriched themselves through corruption. And as Dudley points out, the government's credibility has been damaged even further by allegations that the military and other security forces have murdered criminal suspects and other civilians, making the official security forces seem like they are just another violent group preying on Mexican citizens.

Guzman's escape seems like confirmation that ordinary Mexicans cannot trust the state to keep them safe. That is a big deal in any country, but especially in Mexico, where ordinary citizens have suffered such tremendous violence for so long.