For Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto , Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán’s disappearance is a humiliating personal disaster.
The telegenic president’s “kingpin strategy” has not succeeded in ending rampant drug-war violence across the country, but it has at least offered the government a string of high-profile captures – and in the rogue’s gallery of arrests, El Chapo was the jewel in the crown.
“Whichever way you look at it, this is very bad,” political analyst and former head of the Mexican intelligence agency Guillermo Valdés told the Guardian. “It is going to be very hard to remove the indelible mark this has made on the government’s public and historical image.”
Valdés said he believed it unlikely that the manhunt launched to track down El Chapo will be successful, unless the infamous leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel makes a stupid mistake or the government gets very lucky.
The Mexican government must be all too aware of the precedent set by another boss of Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel, Rafael Caro Quintero. He was sentenced to 40 years in jail for his part in a string of murders, including that of a DEA agent, but to the fury of the US government, he was released from jail in 2013 on a legal technicality – and promptly disappeared. He is now believed to have rebuilt his power base in the rugged mountains of Sinaloa.
Even if Mexican forces manage to recapture Guzmán, it is unlikely that it would fully undo the damage wrought by his escape 16 months after his arrest – and 14 years after he first absconded from high-security jail.
“It demonstrated the weakness of institutions in which a high-security jail can be penetrated through a mixture of corruption, ineptness and the operational effectiveness of organised crime,” Valdés said. “The state looks putrefied.”
Peña Nieto also faces the political problem of who to hold responsible for El Chapo’s second escape: soon after the capo was captured in February 2014, the president said that such an eventuality would be “unpardonable”.
Speaking from Paris on Sunday, where he was beginning a four-day state visit, Peña Nieto announced there would be a full investigation into the probable complicity of prison officials, but made no mention of political responsibility.
Many analysts have said that the escape will probably damage relations with the US government, which made clear its desire to extradite Guzmán in order to try him on a range of trafficking charges.
“The Americans are very angry,” international security expert Edgardo Buscalgia said. “But this deep failure of the security and anti-corruption model could be a blessing in disguise if it produces the international pressure that is necessary to force a weakened President Peña to implement public policies that really begin to deal with it.”
El Chapo’s spectacular disappearing act is the latest in a string of episodes that have exposed endemic corruption and institutional weakness. Many analysts and human rights experts argue that the government’s failure to tackle abuses committed by state forces has only added to the country’s security crisis.
September will see the first anniversary of the disappearance of 43 student teachers, after they were attacked by a local drug gang working with municipal police. Despite promises to crack down on such collusion, the government has so far done little to follow through.
Meanwhile, in recent weeks, allegations that the army massacred between 12 and 15 alleged criminals who were unarmed and had surrendered have also returned to the spotlight after revelations that the head of the military unit involved had received written orders “ to take down criminals in hours of darkness ”.
“Today attention is centred on El Chapo and who helped him to escape,” political analyst Denise Dresser wrote in her column in Reforma. “But the underlying issue is a legacy of violence and criminality produced by an undeclared war, an armed internal conflict, a de facto suspension of individual guarantees and an invincible enemy – the drug cartels.”
Within all of this, the impact that El Chapo’s escape could have on Mexico’s organised criminal landscape beyond jail has hardly received any attention.
His Sinaloa cartel showed few signs of weakening after he was arrested . Now some speculate his freedom could prompt a new push for dominance of territories the group does not currently control.
But perhaps the biggest impact of El Chapo’s escape will be the tidal wave of mockery unleashed on the government .
Reforma newspaper published a front page story on Monday that stressed that the machinery used to build the tunnel through which El Chapo fled would have shaken the ground and required the removal of 3,250 tons of dirt which, it seems, nobody saw.
“They say that in politics you can make a comeback from anything except looking ridiculous,” political commentator Héctor Aguilar Camín wrote in El Universal. “El Chapo Guzmán has made the Mexican government look ridiculous.”