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The capture of “El Chapo” Guzmán, Mexico's notorious cartel chief, explained

Alfredo Estrella/AFP

One of the most famous criminals in the world — Mexican cartel chief Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán — has been caught, again, according to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

The Mexican Marines captured Guzmán after a brief shootout in a safe house in the city of Los Mochis, Sinaloa, on January 8. According to a Mexican police source, the operation to capture Guzmán also involved the US Marshals and the DEA.

The recapture of Guzmán, who escaped from what was supposed to be Mexico's highest-security prison in 2015 after strolling to freedom through a custom-built tunnel, is less a victory for the Mexican government than the end of a continuing embarrassment. Guzmán's escape was a problem for Mexico's claims to have turned the corner on corruption and drug violence. While they haven't regained that credibility just by capturing him again, the country might have another chance to prove it can keep its most famous criminal behind bars — or the US might decide it needs to take matters into its own hands.

Chapo Guzmán: notorious criminal, partial folk hero

Joaquín Guzmán Loera is the longtime head of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, one of the country's largest drug trafficking operations. But no one refers to him as Joaquín — he's referred to by his nickname, "El Chapo," which is Spanish for "shorty."

Guzmán is by far the most famous criminal in Mexico, and 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.

By now, he's as much of a folk hero as anything. He's the star of countless narcocorridos, or folk songs about outlaws and cartel leaders. He's known as a bit of a bon vivant who hasn't let being on the run get in the way of enjoying himself (or being generous to his fellow Mexicans).

One urban legend holds that when El Chapo wanted to go to a restaurant for dinner, he'd send his men in first to confiscate everyone's weapons and cellphones; after eating, the patrons' belongings would be given back, and El Chapo would pick up everyone's tab. Maybe it's true and maybe it's not, but the point is that he's seen as more than just a notorious criminal.

As head of the Sinaloa cartel, Guzmán has been a major cartel player since the 1990s. He was imprisoned in 1993, but continued to control the cartel's business from his prison cell for years and triumphantly escaped in 2001. Lately, though, he's more significant as a symbol of cartels in Mexico than as an operational leader of them — it's believed that Guzmán was semi-retired when he was recaptured in 2014.

Guzmán founded the most politically powerful cartel in Mexico

The Sinaloa cartel is one of the biggest and most powerful cartels in Mexico. Guzmán was an influential figure in their rise in the 1990s and 2000s — despite the fact that he was in prison from 1993 to 2001. But he's not as vital to the organization as you might expect.

Many cartels are operated in a strict top-down fashion, like an army. The Sinaloa cartel is unusual in that it's much less centralized. That structure is one reason the Sinaloa cartel was somewhat insulated from the Mexican government's crackdown on cartels in the late 2000s — the government used a "kingpin" strategy to take out the cartels by taking down their leaders, according to Steven Dudley of InSight Crime, a publication that tracks organized crime in Latin America.

The Sinaloa cartel doesn't use violence for publicity as often as other cartels that gained prominence in the last several years, such as the Zetas, who have made a name for themselves with brutal and well-publicized violence. Instead, the cartel tends to keep its head in its business (mostly drug trafficking), and avoid trouble by buying off government officials wherever possible.

As a result, Guzmán runs the most politically influential cartel in Mexico. During its late-2000s crackdown, the Mexican government claimed that a quarter of its arrests were of Sinaloa cartel members; an NPR analysis of arrest data in 2010 showed that the real percentage was half of that. And in Juarez, where the Sinaloa cartel was engaged in a very bloody turf battle, NPR found that the police overwhelmingly targeted the cartel's enemies.

Guzmán's capture in 2014 was supposed to be a victory for the Mexican government. Then he escaped again.

When Mexican forces captured Guzmán in 2014, it 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.

The US wanted Guzmán extradited, to stand trial for 20 charges of murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy to commit murder that he'd been indicted on earlier in the year. But Mexico refused. Partly, this was because Mexican prosecutors objected to US giving extradited criminals the option of providing intelligence about cartel operations in exchange for a shorter prison term. But partly, it was to drive home the point that the Mexican government could be trusted to look after its own affairs.

Embarrassingly, Mexican officials then proceeded to prove the exact opposite.

On July 11, according to the Mexican government, Guzmán escaped through a hole in his shower stall that led to a mile-long, ventilated tunnel — complete with motorcycle — that ended in a small cottage. That was a pretty ostentatious way to escape. It advertised the fact that even before he escaped, Guzmán and the Sinaloa cartel had the prison under their thumb.

The escape was awfully reminiscent of Guzmán's first escape from prison, in 2001. According to a 2014 New Yorker profile by Patrick Radden Keefe, it's believed that Guzmán escaped from prison in 2001 while hiding in a laundry cart — but he controlled the prison so thoroughly that it's not clear why he even needed to sneak out. Seventy-one prison officials, including the warden, were eventually indicted for corruption.

According to Dudley, Mexican officials had recently turned from the "kingpin" strategy to one that targeted institutional corruption in the judiciary and the police. And they'd been making progress. But they hadn't paid the same attention to the corruption of the prisons, even as they've filled up with cartel members. And Guzmán's escape was the embarrassing, and predictable, result.

The escape compounded problems for the Mexican president

The Mexican government, and especially Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, has been arguing for the past few years that the country has turned a corner in the fight against organized crime and drug violence. The escape of the country's most legendary criminal was an enormous embarrassment to them — it reinforced the idea that Mexico's institutions are deeply corrupt and can't provide basic security to the country's citizens.

It wasn't just this one prison break. In September 2014, 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 was yet another way in which their government was too weak or corrupt to protect the interests of ordinary law-abiding citizens in the face of powerful criminal interests.

It took six months for Mexico to track Guzmán down

After Guzmán's first escape from prison in 2001, he fled to Sinaloa — both his home state and the basis of operations for the eponymous cartel. He managed to remain on the run there for 13 years, despite keeping a relatively high profile, because of his influence with the Sinaloan government. (Radden Keefe describes a video, surreptitiously taken by a bodyguard, in which the Sinaloan governor says not to antagonize the cartel; the bodyguard was later found dead in a ditch.) So it's been assumed that Guzmán was hiding there. The Mexican Marines have reportedly conducted several raids in recent months looking for Guzmán in Sinaloa. But it still took six months to locate him precisely.

Admittedly, it took much less time for law enforcement to recapture Guzmán after his second escape than it did after his first — it only took about six months, rather than thirteen years. One possible reason for that: the Mexican Marines were in charge of this search from the beginning. Most of the previous manhunt had been conducted by the Mexican Army, which notifies state officials before it's about to do anything — making it easier for corrupt officials to tip off cartel members.

It also might be because of the involvement of the US Marshals — whose job is to catch fugitives — and the DEA. Both Marshals and DHS officials were involved in the last capture of Guzmán, in 2014, and a source from within the Mexican police told Reuters that the operation that got him this time around was also a joint US-Mexico effort.

But the relative efficiency of this recapture is not necessarily a consolation. Especially if it happened simply because Mexico simply avoided corrupt officials this time, rather than because there's actually less corruption. And especially if it happened largely because of US involvement. Because it appears that Mexico has at least as much trouble holding Guzmán as finding him.

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).

The US will probably pressure Mexico to extradite Guzmán to the US

When Guzmán escaped in 2015, Mexico's refusal to extradite him to the US started to look 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.

And the US certainly realized the irony. The US grumbled about Guzmán's escape, 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. So while the US helped capture Guzmán, it may have been less a way to help Mexico than a way to ensure it would have leverage to demand his extradition after.

Guzmán's escape appears to have shamed Mexico. It allowed other high-level cartel members to be extradited to the US last fall. More importantly, the Mexican Attorney General signed an extradition order for Guzmán a few weeks after he escaped. But a judge immediately suspended the order for unclear reasons.

The question, now that he's been recaptured, is whether the US will continue to insist that Mexico extradite him — and whether the Attorney General will be able to get his government to comply.