The Corruption at the End of El Chapo's Tunnel

The hole truth.

Photographer: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images

Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman was just looking to bust out of prison. But his mile-long escape tunnel -- complete with a motorcycle on rails -- provides a perfect illustration of the institutional corruption that is undermining the country's future.

In practical terms, Guzman's latest escape may end up being as meaningless as his capture: His Sinaloa cartel, which supplies anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of the U.S. drug market, continued its operations mostly undiminished while El Chapo was in captivity, in part because he was reportedly able to steer it from his cell. Although President Enrique Pena Nieto has played up the capture of drug "kingpins" -- a strategy he belittled before his administration took office -- for most Mexicans, violence and crime continue unabated, all too often enabled or perpetrated by corrupt policemen and soldiers. The number of disappearances reached record levels in 2014, for example.

And Guzman's breakout threatens more than Pena Nieto's credibility (the president pledged last year, upon Guzman's recapture, that it would be "unforgivable" if Guzman escaped prison again after his first escape 14 years ago). Not only are Pena Nieto's security policies in shreds, but his vaunted economic reforms have yet to yield the growth that he promised. And a series of corruption scandals have embroiled him, his wife, his finance minister and other high-level officials. Foreign investors are also fast losing faith in any talk of a "Mexican Moment" of economic growth.

If Pena Nieto wants to help his citizens and revive his political fortunes, he will have to focus more on security than on economic reform. That means speeding up changes to Mexico's justice system to make it more transparent, efficient and fair. It means devoting more resources to strengthening local police forces, from stiffer vetting to better pay. And it means putting in place the groundbreaking anti-corruption measures that Mexico's legislature passed last spring.

More broadly, Pena Nieto must confront the culture of impunity that has shielded Mexican officials. After Guzman's flight, officials and commentators in the U.S. and Mexico have bemoaned that he wasn't extradited to face trial and imprisonment in a less corruptible system. But outsourcing those functions to the U.S. is shortsighted. Even if or when Guzman is caught, Mexicans will not be safe until they can trust those who are supposed to protect them.

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To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.