As Peña Nieto began answering questions on air, however, it quickly became clear that Mexico’s rakish young president didn’t just look good. He felt good, too.
And why not? He had just caught the world’s most wanted criminal.
Yet León Krauze, of Univision, wasn’t going easy. Joaquín Guzmán Loera, aka “El Chapo,” was now behind bars, but he had escaped before.
“Nearly 70 percent of Mexicans say that there is a possibility that Joaquín Guzmán could escape again,” Krauze said. “Do you promise that that won’t happen?”
“That would be more than unfortunate. It would be truly unforgivable,” Peña Nieto said sternly, slicing the air in front of him for emphasis. “The government will take the measures to assure that what happened years ago is not repeated.”
That was February 2014, mere hours after El Chapo was apprehended in a beachfront condo.
Flash forward to Sunday, when guards at the Altiplano maximum security prison opened Guzmán’s cell and found the cartel leader gone.
For more than a year, El Chapo’s henchmen had painstakingly dug their kingpin out of prison. They carved out an elaborate tunnel, complete with lights, ventilation and a mini-motorcycle. The escape route stretched for nearly a mile, from Guzmán’s shower to a nearby house set among the corn fields. And from there, to freedom.
Whether the henchmen knew it or not, with every shovelful of dirt, they weren’t just breaking out their boss.
They were also burying the president.
Peña Nieto’s promise to keep El Chapo under lock and key is now coming back to haunt him. What was the peak of his political career now could end up undermining his entire presidency. The arrest that lent gravitas to the boyishly handsome leader now threatens to make him look childish.
El Chapo’s escape is a stunning reversal in the power struggle between the two men, who may appear to be polar opposites but share an insatiable ambition.
For one man, the tunnel would be a route to freedom. For the other, a potential political grave.
From a wooden tomato crate to the world’s most wanted list
Guzmán was born in the town of La Tuna on the edge of Mexico’s “golden triangle”: the mountainous intersection of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua states where both marijuana and opium grow abundantly. His father was a gomero, or someone who grew poppies for opium and heroin, but died young, according to a 2009 profile in the Wall Street Journal.
“The family was so poor that when Mr. Guzmán was a baby, his mother turned an old wooden crate used to pack tomatoes into a cradle for him,” the newspaper reported. “As a child, [he] was so poor that he sold oranges to scrape together money for a meal.”
Nicknamed “El Chapo,” or Shorty, because of his stout physique, Guzmán reportedly followed in his father’s footsteps. He dropped out of school in the third grade. Driven by a desperate desire to escape poverty, however, he quickly moved up the ranks of the local Sinaloa drug cartel.
He began as an enforcer for kingpin Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, according to the Wall Street Journal. When El Padrino, as Felix Gallardo was known, was arrested in 1989, his drug federation splintered.
Guzmán initially got as his territory a single border crossing in Mexicali, but he soon turned it into a series of tunnels, then his own drug trafficking system. Although uneducated, he was a genius at building his business — and protecting it with bloodshed.
He shipped cocaine to the U.S. inside chili pepper cans and flew cash back to Mexico in suitcases, bribing officials to look the other way. But as innovative as El Chapo was, he was also ruthless. Bodies began piling up in the late 1980s as he battled rival drug clans.
He was captured in 1993 while hiding out in Guatemala and sentenced to 20 years for drug trafficking.
“He’s a simple guy, a rancher type, who talks with a country accent, but he’s very smart,” lawyer Jose Antonio Ortega told the Wall Street Journal. Ortega took Guzmán’s deposition in prison in 2001. He had to wait half a day before Guzmán finally ushered him into his cell.
“Mr. Guzmán apologized for the 12-hour delay, telling the lawyer that he had had a conjugal visit that day and had then taken a nap and a shower in order to be ready to ‘receive [you] with all the courtesy you deserve to be received with,'” according to the newspaper.
Shortly after the deposition, El Chapo escaped from prison, reportedly hidden in a laundry basket and with the help of several million dollars in bribes.
Enrique Peña Nieto wasn’t born into poverty but into Mexico’s small middle class. The son of an engineer and a school teacher, he grew up near the capital, not the wild western hinterland of Sinaloa. And instead of dropping out of school in the third grade, he graduated from college and earned a law degree.
Years later on the campaign trail, his nickname wouldn’t be “Shorty” but “Bombón,” or “sweety,” in reference to his tasty good looks.
But what Peña Nieto does share with the drug lord he would catch and then lose is a knack for angling his way into power.
If El Chapo always envisioned himself rising out of poverty, Peña Nieto always saw himself breaking into the cloistered ranks of Mexico’s political elites.
He carried a briefcase in high school. He cultivated lists of powerful “friends” that he barely knew. He married a telenovela star. Peña Nieto’s rise to the Mexican presidency has been so well planned that it seemed ordained long before it actually happened.
After graduating from law school, Peña Nieto held a series of lower-level positions in the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled Mexico for most of the century. He was elected as one of his state’s deputies in 2003. Just two years later, he became the Mexico state governor.
After a six-year term, during which his first wife died unexpectedly and he married the telenovela star, Peña Nieto was constantly rumored as a potential presidential candidate. His looks, celebrity second marriage and influential governorship insured he stayed in the headlines.
Despite gaffes, including an interview in which he couldn’t name three books that had influenced him, Peña Nieto narrowly beat out two other candidates to win the presidency in 2012.
Billing himself as the face of a modernized PRI, he sought to de-emphasize the drug war and focus on business reforms.
“He didn’t want security to be the top issue of his administration as the War on Drugs was for Felipe Calderon,” said Jeremy McDermott, co-founder of InSight Crime, a foundation dedicated to the studying organized crime in the Americas, referring to Mexico’s president from 2006 to 2012.
Defying fears that his administration would be more accommodating toward organized crime — as the PRI had been in decades past — Peña Nieto’s government proved adept at capturing or killing drug cartel leaders.
“He has had success continuing Calderon’s decapitation policy,” McDermott told The Washington Post in a phone interview.
None of that success, however, prepared the country for Peña Nieto’s announcement on Feb. 22, 2014 that Mexican marines had captured El Chapo without a fight.
For the young president, it was the peak of his popularity. For Mexico, it was almost an Osama-Bin-Laden-is-dead type of moment: a moment in which Mexicans dared to dream of a country rid of drug cartels.
A broken promise, a national embarrassment and a faltering presidency
When news of the “unforgivable” escape broke on Sunday, critics didn’t delay in heaping unrelenting scorn on Peña Nieto.
“El Chapo’s escape, the greatest shame for Peña Nieto,” read one Mexican paper’s headline.
“El Chapo’s escape humiliates Mexican president: ‘The state looks putrefied’,” wrote the Guardian.
For many, the problem went beyond the president’s broken promise to his administration’s entire approach.
“Accusations of ineptness, that really gets them, it undermines their narrative,” security expert Alejandro Hope told the New York Times. “A subtext of this is that crime and violence were the result of the ineptness of” previous governments.
“Now that the smart guys were in charge, those things would not happen,” he said. “Whoops.”
Much of the criticism stemmed from Peña Nieto’s decision not to extradite El Chapo to the United States, a move that Americans had pushed since assisting with the drug lord’s arrest.
Many Mexicans responded to the news by circulating Internet memes portraying Peña Nieto and his administration as bungling idiots.
But as McDermott from InSight Crime pointed out, the jail break is just the latest in a string of high-profile problems for Peña Nieto.
“He’s had some very severe setbacks,” McDermott said. “The killing of the 43 students. A series of accusations of human rights abuses against the military. And now the escape of El Chapo.” Add to the list a political scandal in which the first lady purchased a luxurious house on credit from a developer who received lucrative government contracts.
The student killings in the town of Iguala — allegedly by drug traffickers in cahoots with corrupt local politicians — stirred widespread ire in Mexico as Peña Nieto was seen as acting too slowly and dispassionately.
He faced some of the same accusations on Sunday after refusing to cut short a trip to France to return to Mexico and lead the manhunt.
This series of setbacks threatens to mar the second half of the president’s term.
“This unfortunately put security very much at the top of the agenda again,” McDermott said. “And it threatens to hamstring Peña Nieto from this point onward unless he is able to quickly capture Chapo Guzmán and put the genie back into the bottle.”
El Chapo’s escape could lead to more bloodshed, undermining Peña Nieto’s claims to reducing violence while in office.
“If Chapo decides to retake the mantle — and push the Sinaloa cartel back into the east, where Los Zetas still control the turf — we’ll likely see more violence of the kind we saw when Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel first rose to national dominance, in the early 2000s,” said Malcolm Beith, author of “The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World’s Most Wanted Drug Lord.”
McDermott also said that El Chapo’s escape could lead to increased violence, but for another reason.
“If there is an increase in violence, I don’t think it will be initiated by Chapo Guzmán,” he said. “I think it will probably be the security forces that are going to start squeezing known Sinaloa operatives, going into known Sinaloa territory in the hunt for Chapo Guzmán, and they might get some push back from the Sinaloa armed wing.”
Either way, Peña Nieto’s promises of an incarcerated Chapo and a safer Mexico both appear to be in pieces.
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