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What El Chapo’s escape says about poverty in Mexico

There’s no way for me to fully convey the barbarity of the drug cartels in Mexico. I’m not even going to try. Nor do I want to know all the details.

And describing them as drug cartels doesn’t capture what they really are: many of them have expanded into kidnapping, oil extraction, mining, imports and exports, extortion and intimidation of various kinds.

In some regions they are the de-facto rulers, bankrolling local government and institutions and keeping everyone in check.

This is important to understand as global citizens because 42 percent of Mexicans live in poverty and 9 percent live in extreme poverty.  

Mexico deserves some credit for expanding its definition of poverty to encompass more issues beyond income such as education, nutrition and living standards. But if the measurements are progressive, the methods to address the findings are not. When cartels demand fealty from local governments, the will to address poverty often falls away.

In several ways, El Chapo’s, or Joaquin Guzman, confinement was symbolic--other leaders of the Sinoloa Cartel can take his place. He had escaped from federal prison once before and has lived most of his life in lavish impunity.

Flickr: image of El Chapo from Day DonaldsonFlickr: image of El Chapo from Day Donaldson

So this latest imprisonment was hailed with fanfare and was meant to signify a turning point: if El Chapo could be contained, maybe Mexico could finally begin to contain the cartel problem. And if they could begin to contain the cartel problem, maybe poverty could be better addressed.

But those hopes may have been dashed. Corruption wends its way so thickly through the veins of Mexican politics that attempts to cover it up are routinely exposed as cosmetic (though not all of them, as there are people working to improve the nation against tough odds).

In this case though the message seems clear: If the country’s most secure prison can’t hold one of the world’s most wanted fugitives, then how can Mexico deal with the varied causes of poverty? How can it improve its education system, job opportunities, health and wellness?

Mexico is the 2nd biggest economy in Latin America and the 15th biggest economy in the world. Letting cartels co-opt its expansion, sucking the air out of industries, is simply unacceptable.

Letting a ruthless criminal escape prison after a decade-long manhunt adds insult to the Mexican people’s many injuries.

In the face of this setback, there is still hope. The Mexican people are resilient and have survived the worst of the cartels' rampage from 2004 to 2012. Change may be on the horizon. 

But before poverty can be adequately addressed, corruption and violence must first end. The world can only hope Mexico has better success at that than they do securing their prisons.