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The Year in Mexico’s Drug Wars: A Jailbreak, a Chocolate Cake, and a Washed-Up Strategy

Drug lord Chapo Guzmán's escape from a maximum-security prison overshadowed the arrest of other capos and underlined how few new ideas the government has brought to the fight against Mexico's cartels.

by Nathaniel Janowitz
Dec 28 2015, 7:30pm

Una máscara de látex de Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán. (Imagen por Tony Rivera/AP)

The moment a short and stocky figure disappeared through a hole in his prison cell shower and into a mile-long tunnel that took him to freedom this past July, 2015 instantly became an iconic year in Mexico's war on its drug cartels — and an embarrassing one for the government.

This was the year Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, leader of one of the most successful drug trafficking organizations ever, broke out of jail. Again.

It didn't matter that President Enrique Peña Nieto's ministers continued to claim that murder rates were dropping. The escape also easily overshadowed the arrest of the top leaders of both the Zetas and the Knights Templar criminal organizations, as well as several major figures in the rising Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

Chapo's second escape — his first was from another maximum-security prison in 2001 — was not just embarrassing. It also symbolized the government's failure to bring new ideas to the fight to contain Mexico's drug cartels, let alone ideas that work.

Watch as VICE News goes inside El Chapo's escape tunnel.

There have been an estimated 190,000 violent deaths in Mexico since then–President Felipe Calderón launched a military-led offensive against the country's cartels nine years ago. About 25,000 people have disappeared. Even conservative estimates of the numbers displaced by the violence reach into the hundreds of thousands.

There is little to suggest, meanwhile, that the business of trafficking heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana has suffered major damage.

Related: These Relatives of Mexico's Disappeared Are Combing the Desert Looking for Bodies

Peña Nieto, who took office in December 2012, has barely tweaked Calderón's strategy of pursuing high-profile capos and periodically initiating major deployments of federal forces to drug war hotspots when cartel turf conflict gets out of hand. It is a strategy, critics say, that can only bring temporary respite, and often not even that.

"[The Mexican government] keeps doing the same thing year after year, but we don't see any improvement," said Edgardo Buscaglia, a well-known analyst of global organized crime. "We see more budget coming in from the Mexican federal and state government, and we see more money from the US going down the drain, but we don't see an impact."

Photo by Fernando Brito

Buscaglia believes the key missing element is a campaign to root out the high-level political corruption that he says has allowed the cartels to capture parts of the state. Until the state recovers control of itself, he argues, there will always be space for organized crime to operate — and kill — regardless of how many capos fall or cartels are dismantled.

"The problem of political corruption is not addressed in any way," he said. "Until you see that done by the Mexican government, you will not see any difference in terms of containing these criminal groups."

The government seemed to be locked into committing old mistakes from the very start of 2015, but there was one important difference. It appeared to be getting more difficult to brush aside evidence that such tactics often lead to human rights abuses.

On January 6, at least nine civilians died during a federal police operation against a self-defense militia that was occupying the city hall of Apatzingán in the beleaguered Hot Land region of the state of Michoacán. The government had previously backed the group as a means of weakening the Knights Templar cartel, but the militia was getting out of control.

Mourners lower the coffin of a civilian shot during a federal police operation in the city of Apatzingan on January 6. (Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

The authorities claimed the victims died in "friendly fire," but months later a journalistic investigation put the death toll at 16 and uncovered witnesses who told of extrajudicial killings. A National Commission on Human Rights report in November said there was clear evidence that at least six died because of excessive use of force by the police, including one unarmed man who was shot 14 times.

The events in Apatzingán echoed earlier alleged abuses by Mexican law enforcement. They also came at a time when the government was still struggling with the fallout from the September 2014 disappearance of 43 students in the southern city of Iguala after they were attacked by municipal police.

That event rocked the nation with months of mass demonstrations. The number of people at the marches had dwindled by the start of 2015, but the disappearance of the 43 continued to haunt the government throughout the year, particularly internationally.

For most of 2015, the government stood staunchly by the "historical truth" laid out in November 2014 by then–Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam. He claimed that the municipal police were working for a local drug gang called Guerreros Unidos, and had abducted the students after mistaking them for a rival gang known as Los Rojos. The students, he said, were then incinerated at a garbage dump.

"The evidence allows us to determine that the students were kidnapped, killed, burned, and thrown into the river," Murillo Karam said in January.

The parents of the missing students, as well as hardened skeptics around Mexico, rejected that version of events. Then, in September, independent investigators from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH) released a 500-page report that demolished it in the eyes of the international community. The experts concluded that the police always knew the students were not cartel members and that it was "scientifically impossible" for them to have been incinerated in the dump.

With pressure from international human rights groups continuing to grow, the government was eventually shamed into agreeing to relaunch the official investigation into what happened. Though much-less publicized than Chapo's escape, it was a deeply humiliating moment for the government.

Throughout 2015, the government's efforts to downplay the growing pressure over its human rights record contrasted with its celebration of its successes capturing traffickers. Some of these were genuinely important. Others had barely been heard of before.

In February, federal police detained the leader of the Knights Templar cartel, a former primary school teacher named Servando Gómez Martínez known by his alias, La Tuta.

The Knights Templar — always bastioned in Michoacán and once influential in several other states as well — was already a shadow of its former self, and La Tuta had been on the run and living in caves in the mountains for months. The arrest, however, took place while he was buying a hot dog from a street stand in the city of Morelia. The authorities had reportedly followed a trail of clues beginning with phone tapping and ending when his girlfriend attempted to give him a chocolate cake for his birthday.

Related: Mexican Drug Lord Lived in a Cave and Was Caught Because His Girlfriend Brought Him Birthday Cake

A week later, the authorities arrested Omar Treviño Morales, the brother of Miguel Treviño Morales who, before his arrest in 2013, was one of the most powerful leaders of the infamous Zetas cartel when it was at its height. The new Treviño arrest looked like the last nail in the coffin of the Zetas, who had been renowned for their military style and extreme violence and were once considered the main competition for Chapo's Sinaloa cartel.

Few lamented the demise of the Knights Templar and the Zetas — two of the most ruthless cartels in Mexico — but past experience had demonstrated that this would not necessarily bring peace to the territories they once terrorized.

The governments of Mexico and the US had loudly welcomed the dismantling of the once mighty Beltrán Leyva organization in the wake of the capture or death of all its major leaders beginning in 2009. The epilogue has not provided much to celebrate, as smaller groups formed from the old cartel's remnants proved just as bloody and no easier to control. The security crisis in Guerrero — epitomized by the disappearance of the 43 students but continuing to rage throughout 2015 despite major military deployments — is rooted in turf battles between these groups.

As the government spent 2015 struggling to contain the consequences of cartel fragmentation in places like Guerrero, it seemed not to notice the rise of a major new criminal organization — until it had no choice.

The Jalisco New Generation Cartel, known as CJNG in Spanish, was founded about four years ago, partly from the remnants of other dismantled cartels. The group received little attention until it became front page news on May 1 thanks to a day of dramatic shootouts and co-ordinated "narco-blockades" in four states. In one incident, the group used a rocket-propelled grenade to shoot down a military helicopter. 

The government then declared an all-out war against the Jalisco cartel.

Later in May, federal police and the army stormed a ranch near the small town of Tanhuato that was allegedly filled with CJNG gunmen. The operation left 43 people dead — 42 alleged cartel suspects and one federal agent. The lopsided toll immediately sparked allegations of extrajudicial killings once again. The National Commission of Human Rights began an investigation but has yet to release its findings.

"(The CJNG) has become the focus of the authorities because they challenged the authority directly," said Francisco Jiménez Reynoso, an investigator at the University of Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco. "Remember, they shot down a Mexican army helicopter. And that [the army] is supposed to be the greatest strength we have in our country."

But, Jiménez added, he had not yet seen signs that the government's actions were having much impact on the cartel's capacity. "What is advertised is one thing, but in practice we don't see results," he said. "We see that the cartels continue to get stronger."

Over the course of the year, several allegedly important members of CJNG have been arrested. They include the son and brother of the group's leader, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, aka El Mencho. They also include other leaders presented as major figures who few observers had heard of. El Mencho, however, remains at large, and many blame a sudden spike in murders in the state on power struggles unleashed within the group as it readjusts to the arrests.

The government's ability to present every trafficker arrested or killed as a major success has also been partially undermined by Chapo's escape and the failure — so far — to recapture him.

Attorney General Arely Gómez looks into the exit of Chapo's escape tunnel. (Photo via AP)

Rumours of the capo's whereabouts have come and gone — Venezuela, Costa Rica, Argentina, Chile, as well as the Sierra Madre mountain range where he narrowly escaped a navy operation in October. But even if he does eventually fall, it will not wipe out the damage done by his escape, which left the country's new attorney general, Arely Gómez, staring down the escape tunnel long after Chapo was gone. 

The government has accepted that Chapo could never have planned or executed his break without the complicity of prison officials; several are now in jail, including the warden and the head of federal penitentiaries. But leaked footage from a CCTV camera that monitored Chapo 24 hours a day in his cell is still humiliating. Audible drilling can be heard for six minutes before he disappears down the tunnel. Nearly half an hour later a prison officer is seen looking through the bars and calling out to his superior "Comandante, there's a hole in a shower."

After Chapo's disappearance, the government tacitly conceded doubts in September about its ability to keep high-profile prisoners under control, when it extradited 13 alleged crime bosses to the United States. But perhaps the most devastating blow of all to the government's claim to be getting the upper hand against the cartels are its own tragic numbers.

Watch VICE News' 'Displaced in Sinaloa: The Hunt For El Chapo.'

Well into this year, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong rarely touched on the security issue without pointing to official figures showing a 23 percent fall in the murder rate in 2014 compared to 2012. The numbers, he often repeated, proved the fight against the cartels was going in the right direction even after those same official figures began to show a reversal of the trend in 2015. 

The minister adopted a notably cautious tone this week during an interview on Radio Fórmula — by which time data was out showing that there were 8 percent more murders in the first 11 months of this year than in the same period in 2014.

Related: In Photos — Acapulco, Devoted to Fun and Pursued By Horror

"We are trying to transform things," Osorio Chong said during the interview in which he no longer talked about the national numbers and instead cited falling homicide rates in the north of the country that began before the current government took office. "There are still challenges ahead, but I am telling you that we have made important advances."

In the roller coaster ride of Mexico's drug wars in 2015, the minister appeared to be clinging onto the rail.

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz