Michael Busch

The Economist needs to get its facts straight. The magazine ran an article this past week on the escape of Chapo Guzman from a maximum security prison on July 11. Guzman’s jail break marks the second time the world's most powerful drug lord has slipped out from under state control. 

Linking to the article, The Economist tweeted that “El Chapo’s breakout could escalate Mexico’s drug wars. His last escape certainly did.” It’s not clear from this what constitutes “escalation,” but the implication is unambiguous. With Chapo on the loose, there’s a good chance drug violence will ramp up in the weeks and months to come. After all, that’s what happened last time. 

One problem, though: drug violence did not increase following Chapo’s first escape from prison in 2001. It dropped. Mexico experienced a gradual dip in violence after Guzman jumped the pen, with the single biggest drop coming in 2004. Violence returned to previous levels a year later, then spiked again in 2006.  

The article muddies the history further in describing the connection between Chapo’s escape and the astonishing levels of violence and brutality that would come to characterize Mexican politics in the years since 2006. “After his previous escape the group expanded onto other traffickers’ turf. That triggered a war between gangs and with the police that has left perhaps 100,000 people dead over the last eight years.”  

The increase in drug-related violence, when it arrived in 2004 some three years after Guzman broke out of jail, had little to do directly with Chapo’s freedom. If the uptick can be attributed to anything specifically, two other developments stand out as likely connections. First, increased violence from 2004 onwards was almost certainly linked with the weakened position of the Gulf Cartel, which had recently suffered repeated takedowns of key leaders by the Mexican government. 

An alliance of organized crime outfits, spearheaded by Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel to be sure, took advantage of the opening and went to war for the Gulf’s trafficking routes—a struggle that would play out in grizzly fashion on the streets of major metropolitan areas, and would involve not just the cartels, but members of El Salvador’s MS-13 gang and ex-Kabile assassins from Guatemala recruited as foot soldiers by both sides. This move onto the Gulf's turf would have surely taken place whether Chapo was incarcerated or not.

Second, and “significantly,” as journalist Michael Dreibert points out, “in September 2004, the Assault Weapons Ban, passed in the United States a decade earlier, expired, thanks in large part to political pressure from the National Rifle Association…The effect of the lapse of the ban on Mexico would be immediate and dramatic.” A proverbial iron river of armaments began flowing from north to south. The scale—and type—of mayhem perpetrated by traffickers intensified noticeably thereafter. 

In A Narco History, Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace describe the change. “Lifting the ban facilitated a growing cascade of powerful weaponry south…Not only did the ability to shoot a massive number of bullets lead to hundreds of civilian bystander deaths, but the massive buildup of firepower—rivaling that of the Mexican army—fostered an increasing willingness to tackle state authorities.”

But the biggest leap in violence—which was responsible for the bulk of the 100,000 deaths—was triggered by those state authorities in 2007 when the government of then-President Felipe Calderón went to war, backed by the United States, with the cartels. By its own measures, the Mexican government reported that drug related murders, which stood at some 2,826 people in 2007 jumped to 6,837 people the following year, climbing to 9,614 people in 2009, and 15,273 people in 2010 before falling to 12,903 people in 2011. 

Whether Chapo’s recent escape will signal the start of even greater levels of violence than Mexico currently suffers is anyone’s guess. Given that many of his rivals, as the Economist notes, have been taken care of by the state, a peaceful consolidation of power might well play out if Guzman seeks to increase his market share. That said, countless intervening factors could complicate this calculus. Point is, believing that one man holds the key to predicting the future contours of Mexico’s drug wars is a poor approach.   

Michael Busch is Senior Editor at Warscapes. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.