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 â€" It was last Saturday, July 11, when a certain fellow by the name of Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, aka El Chapo ("Shorty") fled â€" or better said, walked out of â€" 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.

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 â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" an extensive part â€" 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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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