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EL ESPECTADOR

El Chapo Escape, When Income Inequality Breeds Corruption

Mexico's top drug kingpin manages to break out of jail again, likely with the complicity of junior officers. It's hardly surprising when he is so unbelievably rich, and they are paid so little.

One of the rare pictures of El Chapo in jail in the early 1990s
One of the rare pictures of El Chapo in jail in the early 1990s
Juan Francisco Ortega

BOGOTÁ — It was last Saturday, July 11, when a certain fellow by the name of Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, aka El Chapo ("Shorty") fled — or better said, walked out of — Mexico's most modern and supposedly "tightest-security" prison.

Guzmán, one of the world's leading drug traffickers and head of the feared Sinaloa cartel, had been confined for the second time in the Federal Center for Social Readaptation No. 1 (CEFERESO), dubbed the "Altiplano." His flight through an underground tunnel was fit for fiction. In contrast with certain other attempts by drug gangs to rescue their chiefs, there was no daring assault here, neither helicopters nor gunfights: His collaborators built him a well-lit, well-ventilated tunnel leading from beneath his prison shower facilities.

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The tunnel on La Razon de Mexico's July 13 front page

The Sinaloa cartel is estimated to earn between $19 and $39 billion a year, just from sending drugs to the United States. Forbes magazine, always precise with money, has calculated El Chapo"s personal fortune to amount to a cool $1 billion.

This was a simple, well planned and perfectly executed flight. Someone began building a little house near the Altiplano prison, days after Chapo was sent there. The tunnel began to be built inside; it ended up being 1.5 kilometers long, with lighting and ventilation and a railtrack, presumably of the type used to extract and shift earth. It is a piece of careful engineering that would also have required the prison's blueprint — supposed to be a "secret" document. Large quantities of earth had to be removed, and for this to be done and a tunnel to be completed within a year and a half, one would have needed drills and all manner of heavy, and very noisy, excavation machinery, even though "nobody heard or saw nada."

The little house near the Altiplano prison — Photo: Narco Guerra MX via Instagram

Pricing inequality

One is left incredulous by the time said to have passed between finding out about the disappearance and communicating it to authorities, this allowing them to start a search: four hours. As a Mexican official explained to me the other day, just so we are clear: It was the time needed for a calm and orderly escape, without stress or mishaps.

How much did it cost? Experts would say the tunnel alone cost about one million Mexican pesos (a little over $63,000), to which we must add the bribes paid to a large number of officials and agents, as media are speculating. I would even say, not that many — 40 or at most 50 officials needed to be paid off.


Put yourself in the place of one of those policemen, who receives a monthly wage equivalent to about $893 and is offered tens of thousands just to see or hear nothing. Meaning the entire operation would probably cost no more than $250 million, which is peanuts to the Sinaloa cartel. A policemen from Mexico City told me, "I'd accept if they offered me the money. It's not just money. It'd cover the education, health and welfare of my children and grandchildren. Why should I not accept it? To protect a state that doesn't give a f**k about me?"


And there is the crux of the story: We are talking about deeply corrupted societies whose corruption is in part — an extensive part — rooted in gaping economic inequalities. When just a few have everything and others have nothing, there is no way of avoiding corruption or such outlandish scenarios. Not surprisingly, lower inequality and lower corruption go hand in hand, as many countries show. There lies the challenge for all Latin American countries. Mexico is but one outstanding example, our Colombia is another.

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