How El Chapo distracts from Mexico’s main problems

How El Chapo distracts from Mexico’s main problems

The ‘El Chapo’ capture, it turns out, is not only a morale and political boost for the ailing President Nieto, it is also developing into a public telenovela with an international cast that is shifting public attention away from the country’s continuing and most pressing issues.

The third capture of drug kingpin Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán on January 8th developed, unsurprisingly, into a media phenomenon in Mexico and abroad. Mexican President Peña Nieto soon declared El Chapo’s capture a victory for the rule of law. American officials followed suit by praising the capture and their collaboration with Mexican intelligence. Public interest over the news increased during the following days, as the American magazine Rolling Stone released an article relating a visit to the drug lord’s hideaway by Hollywood actor Sean Penn and former soap opera star Kate del Castillo.

The capture in itself is a political victory for the current administration and restores some of the lost credibility following El Chapo’s escape in July last year. The Sinaloa Cartel leader remained Mexico’s most wanted man given his overwhelming control over drug trade into the United States. However contrary to Peña Nieto’s claims, the third El Chapo capture is not a victory for Mexican institutions.

Nor does it show the strong rule of law in the country, it evidences the exact opposite: a corrupt institutional system that allowed the country’s most wanted criminal to perform two surreal prison escapes and a dismal record of the rule of law in a country where most criminals remain unpunished, often with complacency from the authorities.

A failed strategy

Since the Calderón administration declared the so-called ‘War on Drugs’, the authorities’ strategy has largely focused on capturing the most notorious drug kingpins, with several of the most prominent leaders being captured over the years. Nonetheless, this strategy has not delivered an improvement in Mexico’s security situation, nor has it curbed drug trade to the United States.

In fact, levels of violence in Mexico surged in 2015, interrupting a downward trend experienced over the last few years. Moreover, there are no hints that the Sinaloa Cartel, or Mexican drug trafficking organizations as a whole, have been weakened. It is estimated that said organization alone is responsible for roughly half of illegal narcotics sold in the United States.

Paradoxically, the unintended consequences of this strategy have resulted in a more complex security scenario. As authorities brought down regional mob bosses, some of the organizations they commanded were suddenly left without leadership and started to break apart. The newly emerged criminal cells soon turned to other types of crimes as a source for revenues, since drug trafficking remained largely controlled by the country’s major cartels, which remain functional despite leadership losses.

This phenomenon was more acute in Mexico’s central and south-western areas, where the proliferation of organized criminal cells have sent regional violence oaring, and where the notorious case of 43 missing students occurred amid regional rivalries between criminal groups.

Rising violence, impunity and economic costs

Figures show that organized crime related executions increased by five percent year-on-year in 2015.

Moreover, official preliminary figures (up to November) show that homicides surpassed the deathtoll of the same time period in 2014 by seven percent. The escalation of violence for the first time during Peña Nieto’s administration suggests that the gradual declines experienced over the last few years were more likely the result of fluctuations in organized criminal activity, not an improvement in the government’s security strategy or a more solid rule of law. Moreover, these rises occur amid increased police and army deployments and an ambitious security agenda unveiled by the President in late 2014.

Despite the surge in criminal activity, impunity remains the norm throughout the country. A 2015 survey released by the National Statistics Institute (INEGI) showed that over 92 percent of crimes nationwide are not reported or not investigated. Even high-profile cases such as the disappearance of 43 students or power abuses by the authorities remain unsolved.

The same survey highlighted the fact that the economic consequences of criminal activity in Mexico show no signs of receding. The total cost of crime and insecurity for Mexican households reached $12.07 billion, representing 1.2 percent of the country’s GDP. Moreover, the Global Peace Index for 2015 estimated that the cost of containing violence amounted to US$221 billion, roughly 22 percent of GDP and an increase relative to the previous year.

These high costs are inflicted on a country with mediocre economic performance, with Mexico’s overall poverty rate rising to 46 percent in 2014 and real household income falling by roughly three percent during the 2012-2014 period.

These figures show that Mexico’s security strategy has so far failed given the poor performance by security forces of every level, the dismal state of the rule of law and an underperforming economy. Infiltration by criminal groups in local governments remains chronic. Criminal activity remains overwhelmingly unpunished given the lack of credibility in the authorities and the lack of capacity by local prosecutors. Organized criminal groups of different scales continue to recruit youngsters among the country’s most vulnerable areas amid a lack of economic opportunities.

Mexico’s drug problem is the result of a state system that shows no signs of improvement on key areas. The capture of drug kingpins provides much-needed breathing space to an administration that is increasingly under pressure for not delivering the expected results.

Therefore, the El Chapo scandal provides a useful escape tunnel, away from the most pressing issues that remain unsolved.

Categories: North America, Security

About Author

Eduardo Arcos

Eduardo Arcos is a policy analyst and freelance journalist. He holds an M.Sc. in Security Studies from University College London and a B.A. in International Relations from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM). His research focuses on international political economy, peace and security and Latin American affairs.