Mexico has intimated that it is working to expedite the extradition of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a tacit admission that efforts to reform the prison system have fallen short of the requirements to ensure the safe custody of the nation’s most dangerous criminals.
On January 22 President Enrique Peña Nieto told an audience of economic and political leaders gathered in Davos, Switzerland, that his government was taking steps to extradite Guzmán to the United States “as soon as possible.” Peña Nieto’s comments echo statements in the immediate aftermath of Guzmán’s arrest that Mexico would seek to send Guzmán to the US, where a handful of indictments await the Sinaloa Cartel boss.
While the timing of Guzmán’s transfer remains to be seen, his swift extradition remains the right choice for Mexican officials. A third escape by Guzmán would mean not only having one of the nation’s most influential criminals return to the outside world, but it would ruin Mexico’s credibility on security matters — and ultimately on other issues — for a generation. There is also an ample track record of Mexican criminals essentially running their empires from behind bars, from the Gulf Cartel’s Osiel Cárdenas (whom President Felipe Calderón summarily extradited six weeks into his term in 2007) to Guzmán himself (who had nearly 400 visits with associates during his less than 18 months in prison prior to his July 2015 escape).
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At the same time, while the determination to extradite Guzmán is a laudable recognition of the reality on the ground, it is also an admission that Mexico doesn’t trust itself with one of the most basic elements of the rule of law. In other words, that Guzmán’s extradition is such an obvious necessity is unfortunate, and it is an indictment of decades of ineffectual political leadership.
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The defects of the prison system have manifested themselves at regular intervals throughout the past two presidencies, and were obvious to a casual observer even prior to Guzmán’s most recent escape. The frequency of mass killings inside prisons, which often leave dozens dead, suggest that gangs are free to settle scores inside prison walls. Escapes involving scores, or even hundreds, of detainees inside prisons are likewise all too common. And of course Guzmán’s escape in 2001 was about as loud a wake-up call as is possible.
Nonetheless, the quality of Mexico’s prison system appears to have only gotten less reliable over the course of the past three presidencies. While there are a number of related factors impeding improvements — among others, overcrowding and a lack of secure facilities — a key element is the Mexican political system’s failure to make an enduring commitment to reforming the prison system.
Former President Calderón announced the creation of 12 new prisons late in his term, which is arguably the most robust attempt to reform the prison system in recent Mexican history. However, even this was a mere half-measure; many of these projects had already been underway when Calderón made his announcement, and Mexico’s prison woes won’t be solved simply with more facilities. It is also unclear whether the projects have continued apace under Peña Nieto, but in any case it seems obvious that prison reform is low on the current administration’s list of security priorities.
This reflects a broader problem, as Mexico has been unable to secure an enduring answer to several long-term security problems. Every Mexican president has sought to remake the federal police forces throughout the past 20 years, a cycle of constant institutional change in which each new administration undoes the effort by their predecessor. (Peña Nieto’s examples are the gendarmerie and the recent efforts to implement the mando unico.) The same dynamic is evident in the spotty implementation of Mexico’s judicial reform, and in the lack of interest in systematically addressing political or police corruption.
Unfortunately, Mexico’s political system is not set up to address long-term challenges. The six-year presidential term, with no provision for reelection, allows presidents a limited window to enact any reform, and they typically do not pursue intractable issues where their work is unlikely to yield any results during their presidency. So instead of initiating a process that over a 10- or 20-year period could result in substantial improvements, presidents from across the spectrum prefer showy accomplishments even though they may have no impact on Mexican society.
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The same dynamic is at play at every level; despite some recent reforms to electoral laws, reelection is narrowly proscribed in legislative and executive jobs around the country, meaning political leaders have no individual incentive to champion issues that are resistant to short-term fixes.
These daunting problems require institutional changes and cultural changes within departments, which is another way of calling them Herculean tasks. But for decades, Mexico has needed more effective police, a more dependable prison system, a modernized judiciary, in addition to any number of other perennial objectives, and it is reasonable to wonder why the results haven’t been greater. It’s also reasonable to ask why, as Peña Nieto seeks to outsource his prison problem to the US via extradition, the current government hasn’t done more to address the source of Mexico’s failures.
Given that the basic causes of Mexican insecurity are deeply-rooted issues of institutional decay, the misalignment between Mexico’s needs and its politicians’ time horizons serves as a substantial, and often insuperable, barrier to progress.