Conversation: The Escape of a Drug Kingpin

5 MINS READJul 17, 2015 | 17:09 GMT

Lynn Wise: Hi, I'm Lynn Wise, editor here at Stratfor. With me today is Scott Stewart, our vice president of tactical analysis. Today we're going to be talking about the second escape of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel. So Scott, let's start with the actual escape, the alleged details of this escape that was, they're pretty sensational. El Chapo was arrested last year and has been in El Altiplano prison ever since, which is supposedly Mexico's highest security prison. He's under a lot of scrutiny. How was he able to escape under such heavy surveillance?

Scott Stewart: Well, that's the interesting thing. You know a lot of media reporting that we're looking at is focused on the tunnel itself, which really was a pretty spectacular engineering feat. You know, it stretched allegedly for over a mile. You know, it's thirty meters down. And one of the most interesting things, or most interesting on the engineering side, is that it came up precisely where it needed to in El Chapo's shower stall, a place that was protected from view from the closed-circuit television camera in his cell. But one of the things that we also need to focus on was, it just wasn't a huge engineering feat; it was also an incredible intelligence feat. The fact that, you know, his rescuers were able to know to within an inch or a fraction of an inch exactly where they needed to come up. So that's showing us that someone definitely had gained some incredible intelligence, not only on where Guzman was specifically, where his cell was, the layout of the cell, but they also needed to know something about the procedures of the prison and what time was most ideal to make the escape. So, all told, it was really a pretty incredible escape from both an engineering and an intelligence perspective.

Lynn: And this is really what the United States feared. The United States wanted Guzman extradited; Mexico refused. And basically drug violence has been declining, or at least leveling off over the past couple of years in Mexico. At the same time, though, the Pena Nieto administration, the Mexican government, has been implicated in some pretty embarrassing human rights situations during the past year. What does this escape mean for U.S.-Mexico relations, for the Pena Nieto administration?

Scott: Well, you know, obviously the Americans are going to be angry. You know, there's —we've seen repeated statements from official in the United States, the DEA chief and several other people: 'Hey, we told you so; this is what we were afraid of. This is why we wanted him.' But at the same time as there's that anger, there's also the realization that they're going to have to continue to work with the Mexicans. And so this is going to strain the relationship a little bit, but it's not going to completely destroy it. And really, overall, while there were some kind of bumps as the Pena Nieto administration came into office and they changed the way that cooperation was going in counternarcotics —basically they had brought everything together under the interior ministry, instead of letting different U.S. agencies go to specific Mexican agencies — but still, despite those changes and a little bit of the waves they created, things had been on the upturn, and cooperation had been going quite well. So I think it's going to continue well. But you have these road bumps. We saw similar incidents last August, when an old-time narco, one of the leaders of the Guadalajara cartel, was let out of prison on a technicality that probably involved some bribery, and the Americans were very upset about that. And of course they're still also working with the Mexicans to look for him—and that's a guy by the name of Rafael Caro Quintero. So you know, there's going to be a little agitation and anger, but they're still going to continue to work together.

Lynn: And El Chapo has the governments, the U.S. and Mexican governments to worry about, but he also has—he's entering in a changing cartel landscape in Mexico. We talk about the Balkanization of the cartels a lot here at Stratfor, and basically that a lot of the old-style, centralized cartels are becoming smaller, decentralized gangs. But obviously the Sinaloa cartel still has a lot of influence. El Chapo was still a very strong figure in that cartel. But what exactly can he expect, now that he's free and in this changing cartel landscape?

Scott: One of the things we need to realize is, if he was able to coordinate this escape from inside his cell, he was also able to keep coordinating his organization's operations outside of prison as well. So the fact—or the concept that people keep are, that, you know, this Balkanization happened of Sinaloa because he was in prison is really false. And of course, anybody who reads Stratfor can go back and look at the history: this Balkanization predates El Chapo's arrest by years. You know, we saw groups — and important, significant groups of the Sinaloa cartel break away. Factions like the beltranleba organization broke away. We saw Ignacio Coronel killed, and his people blamed that assassination on El Chapo and then, you know, break away from them. So we've seen group after group leaving El Chapo and Sinaloa. And so the Balkanization impacted them well before his arrest. And it's going to continue. The fact that El Chapo's out now, I don't think is going to change that larger dynamic that has been going on for longer. Basically, although the king has escaped, I don't think that even together with all his horses and men, are going to be able to put that Sinaloa humpty-dumpty back together. It's just too fractured at this time.

Lynn: Thank you, Scott. I think that's all we have time for, today. For more on this and other topics surrounding Mexico and the drug war, please visit

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