Shorty Keeps Running Away


At 8:52 PM on July 11, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera – so called for his short stature – was pacing restlessly across his cell in Altiplano, Mexico’s only super-maximum-security prison. He proceeded to sit on his bed and change his shoes, just before walking to the shower area in the corner of his cell. Security camera footage showed him kneeling behind a waist-high concrete wall before disappearing into a blind spot. In a few seconds, he was gone. The following day, Mexican authorities discovered a square opening cut into the floor of the shower which gave way to a 4,921-foot-long tunnel. The tunnel was fully ventilated and illuminated; it contained a makeshift vehicle constructed from a railcar rigged to the frame of a small motorcycle that drove from one end of the tunnel to another, probably used to transport the machinery and materials required for the construction of the tunnel. It ended beneath a small cinderblock house under construction in an open field. The Altiplano tunnel is, by any standards, an engineering marvel; according to an investigation by the New York Times, it likely cost over $1 million and took at least four people to complete, who were never detected or reported by the prison authorities. The escape was, by any standards, spectacular – a true disappearing act.

But El Chapo’s escape was also entirely unsurprising. His capture in February of 2014 had represented the greatest feat of the Mexican government’s security policy; his escape now represents its greatest defeat. It is the apotheosis of a failed security policy that the Mexican government has been implementing since the late 1990s, known as the kingpin strategy. Its basic premise is that by “decapitating” heads of crime families (“a figurative description for what has become a gruesomely literal narco tactic”, The Atlantic’s Keegan Hamilton aptly notes), the entire organization will be weakened. What has instead resulted from this misinformed strategy has been a proliferation of cartels, a diversification of the forms of violence they practice, and an overall increase in violence in the states where this policy has been most heavily implemented. In this sense, El Chapo’s escape represents both the metaphorical and literal failure of the kingpin strategy. Mexico’s drug war now requires a paradigmatic shift away from this strategy in order to truly effect justice.

At first glance it is all too easy to mythologize a character like El Chapo. Born and raised in rural poverty, the semi-illiterate grammar school dropout now heads a $3 billion drug trafficking empire that controls at least a quarter of all illegal drugs imported into the United States. He made “Forbes’ World’s Most Powerful People” and “Forbes World Billionaire” rankings, and his story has been the subject of dozens of narcocorridos, Mexican ballads that glorify traffickers. After the killing of Osama bin Laden, Guzmán became the world’s most wanted man at the callow age of 55. For perspective: according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), El Chapo sells more drugs today than notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar did at the height of his career.

The trajectory of El Chapo’s career has followed that of the Mexican drug industry quite closely. For decades, Mexican smugglers had served only as logistical middlemen along the Caribbean route between Colombia and the United States. Beginning in the 1980s, a simultaneous boom in cocaine production and US drug-related law enforcement compelled Colombians to seek out an alternate route, which they discovered in Mexico. They began paying Mexican smugglers in cocaine, which generated enough capital for Mexicans to invest in their own drugs; by the 1980s, in the wake of the successful dismantling of Colombia’s drug cartels, Mexico had come to control the entire narcotics production and supply chain in the Americas. Deep ties between the two nations remain: according to a recent report from from Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Sinaloa controls 35 percent of the cocaine exported from Colombia, which remains the largest producer of the drug in the world. Mexico’s proximity to the United States generated a higher market demand for drugs and increased their availability—leading to an explosion of the industry. The transformation of Mexico into the world’s biggest supplier of narcotics has been fueled, indeed, by what Hillary Clinton termed America’s “insatiable demand for illegal drugs,” or its position as the world’s biggest consumer of narcotics.

The Sinaloa cartel is a direct product of the narcotráfico power realignment of the 1980s. The mountainous and rugged state of Sinaloa had long been a center for contraband in Mexico, as well as a home to local marijuana and poppy cultivation. The first generation of major Mexican trafficking organizations of the late 1960s, pioneered by Pedro Avilés Pérez, had their origins there, from which they created and controlled routes to the United States. The second generation of Sinaloan traffickers, which included Alvilés’ nephew El Chapo Guzmán Loera, quickly splintered off into various separate and warring factions. It now stands as Mexico’s most powerful drug organization, operating in 17 Mexican states, and in as many as 50 countries. It is rumored to have ties to the Mexican National Action Party (PAN) and other political and economic elites in Mexico. The Sinaloa cartel is also associated with the label “Golden Triangle,” referring to Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua, some of Mexico’s most dangerous states with the highest homicide rates in the country. El Chapo alone claims to have directly or indirectly murdered thousands of people.


It is critical to understand the historical context in order to better comprehend the security strategy developed to deal with the Sinaloa cartel and its counterparts throughout the country. Indeed, the example of Colombia and the influence of the United States were both critical in the development of the kingpin strategy. It was originally based on a similar strategy developed by the DEA in 1992 to target the heads of Colombia’s infamous Cali and Medellín cartels. Colombian cartel leaders at the time were directing their violence against the state, targeting high-profile federal officials for assassination. Thus, when the capos were taken out, the threats to the federal government were effectively reduced. The logic of the strategy was that it was all but futile to attack the cartel’s business activities, and that the common thread among all of the critical nodes of activity in the drug trafficking industry was the command-and-control elements that provided the leadership, authority, management and direction for those activities. In other words, the crimes that organizations like the Sinaloa cartel were perpetrating were too diffuse to ever be targeted effectively. Thus, the focus was placed on the people committing the crimes, like Escobar and El Chapo, and not on the crimes themselves.

The Colombian strategy was first adapted to Mexico by PAN President Vicente Fox upon his election in 2000; however, it was aggressively intensified under his successor, Felipe Calderón (2006 to 2012), who fully initiated the “War on Drugs” in the country and established the kingpin strategy as Mexico’s defining security policy to this day. The strategy was part of a governmental effort to arrest key drug cartel leadership figures in order to dismantle organizations and lessen the threat to national security. To do so, he dramatically increased military presence throughout the country and directed efforts that were uniquely targeted towards cartel leaders. The United States became intimately involved in the intellectual development of the strategy, turning it into a “copy of the American antiterrorism strategy of high value targets,” in the words of Raúl Benítez Manaut, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who specializes in security issues. Calderón’s efforts were bolstered by the generous security assistance, in the millions, provided by the United States. The United States also provides intelligence on drug leaders’ whereabouts and spends millions to strengthen the Mexican security forces who act on that intelligence. Through this bilateral cooperation, the strategy has been successful in “disrupting illicit networks” as it hoped to: Mexico’s government published a most wanted list with 37 cartel capos, 23 of whom were killed or arrested by government forces under Calderón’s administration.

These are misleading statistics. Since the full-force implementation of the kingpin strategy, drug-related violence in Mexico has metamorphosed and worsened. The elimination of capos like El Chapo engenders a power vacuum, leading to the fracturing of the organization and an increase in homicide rates as rival groups battle for control. Under President Calderón’s administration, the country saw the appearance of sixty to eighty new trafficking gangs and homicide rates double that of the previous administration, spiking to over 120,000. While the large cartels are like monopolies involved in the production, transportation, distribution and sale of drugs, smaller groups often lack international reach to control the entirety of drug supply chain. Instead, they have engaged in different forms of criminal enterprise such as kidnapping, extortion, and corruption – forms of violence that are arguably more dangerous for a larger section of Mexican society. On the other side, military troops have likely committed an unknown number of human rights violations, none of which they have been tried for. The power vacuum has also invited the formation of autodefensas groups or self-defense, vigilante groups made up mainly of farmers in rural areas. These militias have become formidable forces against the cartels in certain states, but pose a dilemma for Mexican officials: though these groups are technically illegal and pose a threat to state security forces, they have also been more effective than the latter for protecting society in the short term from the cartels. So, though kingpin decapitations, or strikes as they are often called, eliminate some of the most powerful players in the narcotics industry, they also result in unintended and extremely unfavorable consequences. Leadership removal might lead to short-term reductions in violence, but the longer-term effect is usually more bloodshed.

In efforts to make Mexico more attractive to foreign investors as part of his “Mexican Moment” plan, current President Enrique Peña Nieto toned down rhetoric and tried to veer away from the kingpin strategy, promising to reduce violence in more comprehensive ways than his predecessors. In line with the history of his party– the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI – he prefers to “look the other way” when it comes to drug-related crime, and does not want to let Mexico’s chronic violence and organized crime problems define his presidency. Ultimately, however, he has adopted much of the same approach as his immediate predecessor with an emphasis on using the military to hunt kingpins. The capture of El Chapo was mainly a publicity stunt for Peña Nieto’s administration, which in the past year had suffered a severe and profound crisis of legitimacy. However, the visibility and relative simplicity of the strategy, combined with strong financial pressure from United States, make it unlikely that President Peña Nieto will significantly alter the strategy anytime soon.

There are several reasons the kingpin strategy has not worked successfully in Mexico. For one, the success of the strategy in Colombia was achieved in very different conditions. The Colombian application of the strategy focused on the destruction of the cartels not for the purpose of stopping drug exports, but rather for the purpose of self-preservation, because the cartels were intent on destroying the government. The situation in Mexico, however, is not one of war between the government and the cartels, but rather conflict between the cartels at the expense of local communities. Additionally, the strategy resulted in very deleterious consequences in Colombia as well, as it arguably led to the formation of political alliances with paramilitary groups, and later on a more authoritarian system of government.

For it to succeed, the kingpin strategy would need to be combined with other rule-of-law reforms and other law enforcement and intelligence institution building efforts. This claim gets at the root causes of drug violence in Mexico, which have thus far been relatively ignored by recent administrations. One of the most significant causes is a weak capacity for state action. The Mexican state has traditionally been unable to address the basic social needs of the society and has lacked the security apparatus to address potential threats like cartels. In many cases, it even goes so far as to actively collude with traffickers. The lack of state capacity is attributable to the endemic bribery and corruption within the Mexican political system. These weak points were exploited by El Chapo in order to escape, and are what have enabled his success to this day. If they remain unaddressed, he will continue to, both metaphorically and literally, escape the state.

More generally, the problem of the kingpin strategy is a conceptual one. Solving Mexico’s drug war will require a paradigmatic shift in the way that we conceptualize cartels: They are not simple hierarchical institutions but rather vast and complicated networks that have infiltrated all parts of Mexican society. Cartel violence itself has changed since the implementation of the kingpin strategy. The smaller organizations that have been created as a result of the fractionalization of larger cartels operate differently and thus require a rethinking of the security strategy used against them. The new repertoire of crimes they commit, which includes kidnappings, extortions and corruption, has to be recognized by new strategy. Protection of human rights should be the cornerstone of an effective policy. American pressures must be tempered as they overly favor supply-side answers to the drug problem and in doing so, increase violence in Mexico. We should begin thinking of the crimes and not of the criminals, in order to reclaim victimhood for the thousands of affected peoples in the country. By shifting focus away from the capos and instead focusing on individual crimes that they have perpetrated, legal and criminal institutions may be better equipped to begin reducing violence in the country. The escape of El Chapo is just another demonstration of the fundamental problems of the state’s conceptualization of the cartel problem in Mexico. These are the problems which must be addressed to make any future capture of El Chapo worthwhile. •

Catalina Piccato is a junior in Columbia College majoring in History and Economics. She was born in Mexico City, Mexico, but has lived in New York City for most of her life. She can be reached at: