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Feature 091415 Corcoran

Monday, September 14, 2015

Mexican Court Order, Alarmingly, seeks to Protect 'El Chapo'

By Patrick Corcoran (InSight Crime)

A Mexican court order issued in August prohibits authorities from torturing, killing, or extraditing Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, an unusual gesture that raises questions about the seriousness of the search to apprehend the capo after his daring July prison escape.

As reported by Univision Investiga, Guzman’s longtime lawyer Juan Pablo Badillo solicited the prohibitions -- which were subsequently granted by a tribunal of three magistrates -- in the weeks following his client’s flight from the Altiplano prison. Among other points, Badillo argued that, if extradited, Guzman would likely be subjected to torture in the United States to force his confession to crimes for which American authorities have accused him.

This type of judicial order is highly unusual. While Mexico has long had an uneven approach to extraditions -- kingpins like Benjamin Arellano Felix and Osiel Cardenas have been extradited in the past decade, but many others have remained in Mexico despite keen US interest in their activities -- it is rare, if not unprecedented, to explicitly and preemptively outlaw a specific suspect’s extradition. 

It is also not clear what purpose the prohibition against killing or torturing Guzman serves. While not enforced to great effect, Mexico already has laws against both government torture and murder, so it doesn’t appear the judges are doing much more than ratifying existing law regarding these two requests. Notwithstanding the order, it is difficult to imagine that Mexican troops, should they be faced with a cohort of hostile and armed Chapo loyalists, would hesitate to shoot him.

Similarly, an extradition prohibition prior to his arrest -- and prior to an onslaught of pressure that may face a different administration with different priorities -- also seems to be of limited value. 

That is not to say, however, that the news will have no impact.

InSight Crime Analysis

The prohibition on killing El Chapo reflects some uneasiness with recent episodes in which fugitive drug lords have been shot to death by government officials during attempts to apprehend them. Such cases include the death of Heriberto Lazcano, the former boss of the Zetas; Ignacio Coronel, a former lieutenant of Guzman’s in the Sinaloa Cartel; and Ezequiel Cardenas, the erstwhile leader of the Gulf Cartel. While there is no indication that circumstances surrounding their deaths were inappropriate, the frequency of capos’ deaths at the hands of government officials represents a vulnerability in Mexico's security strategy.

See also: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile

In some regard, the worry over the killing of Guzman or other kingpins reflects a problem already documented by InSight Crime: the aggressive tracking of fugitive kingpins incentivizes aggressive and violent behavior, which is more harmful to society than low profile drug trafficking. 

At the same time, it’s not clear that the typical measures to make apprehensions safer -- for instance, the involvement of the local police forces where the suspect is located, or phasing out the use of the military in manhunts -- will accomplish much. Whether because of incompetence or corruption, local and state police have proven themselves wholly incapable of handling searches for millionaire fugitives. The Mexican marines, who in recent years have typically been the tip of the spear in the hunt for kingpins, have no incentive to involve other agencies, and their training apparently lends itself to engaging in shootouts more than making stealthy arrests. 

The latest prohibition also risks reinforcing longstanding impressions that Guzman and his organization are the recipients of special treatment from the Mexican government. Former President Felipe Calderon dealt with such accusations throughout his presidency, and prior to Guzman’s arrest current President Enrique Peña Nieto also faced similar complaints. Indeed, Guzman’s escape appears to have been made possible with the help of insiders, and four Mexican officials were recently charged for facilitating his breakout.

See also: Coverage of El Chapo

The incident, as well as the general context surrounding Guzman’s escape, also risks complicating cooperation between US and Mexican authorities. The suggestion by Guzman’s lawyer -- and subsequent endorsement by ostensibly objective jurists -- that torture is a common tactic of US federal law enforcement officials contradicts American law, and has little basis in documented cases. 

Beyond unfairly tarring American officials, the court order also indicates that whatever mutual interests the US and Mexican justice systems would seem to share, Guzman’s influence is more important. This seems certain to undermine trust and limit the willingness of American authorities to collaborate with Mexican security agencies.

Whether or not this will have a negative impact on organized crime in Mexico is debatable, but it reflects some of the worst impulses of the Mexican criminal justice system.

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This commentary, "Mexico Court Order Aiming to Protect 'El Chapo' Raises Speculation," was first published in InSight Crime, on Sep. 10, 2015 and reposted per a Creative Commons authorization.  InSight Crime's objective is to increase the level of research, analysis and investigation on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Patrick Corcoran is a graduate of the University of Tennessee, and he received his MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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