Impunity Is the Tie That Binds the Tlatlaya Massacre, the 43 Missing Students and El Chapo's Escape

Marcha contra la detención y desaparición de los 43 normalistas de Ayotzinapa, desde la Plaza Independencia hasta la Embajada de México. Foto tomada de la cuenta en Flickr de Sofia bajo licencia Creative Commons.

“You're hurting me, Mexico.” March against the arrest and mass disappearance of the 43 students from the teacher's college in Ayotzinapa. Photo from the Flickr account of Sofia under  Creative Commons license.

This article was originally published on Sin Embargo and is reproduced here under a partnership agreement.

The escape of the Sinaloan cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the massacre at Tlatlaya, and the disappearance of 43 students from a rural teachers’ college in Ayotzinapa have two sinister elements in common: impunity and total disregard for the law—this according to a report filed by Mary Speck, Project Director for Mexico and Central America at the International Crisis Group.

According to an article by Speck that appeared in the Huffington Post, “the kidnapping of the 43 Ayotzinapa teaching college students in Iguala exposed the rot within the municipal police forces, who not only failed to prevent but also took part in mass abduction and murder, according to federal prosecutors. The Tlatlaya case, in which 22 suspects died, some apparently executed, laid bare the brutality within the country's vaunted armed forces, three of whose members face murder charges.” Speck points out.

“Las autoridades mexicanas deben darse cuenta ahora que incluso la policía y las operaciones militares eficientes no van a poner fin a la impunidad que infecta a las instituciones gubernamentales”, advirtió.

“Mexican authorities should realize by now that even successful police and military operations will not bring an end to the impunity that infects government institutions.”

“These actions discredit the many officers and public officials who do their work honourably — often in the face of great danger — to combat dangerous delinquents,” adds Speck.

The escape of “El Chapo” [Shorty] Guzmán, leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, is just the latest in a series of embarrassing events plaguing the Mexican government. “But instead of pursuing broad investigations up the chain of command into the crimes of commission or omission that allowed such horrific acts to take place, the government seems to have pursued a strategy of containment,” argues Speck.

As an example, she cites the disappearance of the students on September 26, 2014, a case in which only a few local officials, among them the former mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, are actually facing charges, despite the fact that state, national and military officials were aware of the disappearance but “did nothing to track down the culprits.”

“A common thread runs between mass disappearances, such as the September 26, 2014, kidnapping of 43 teaching students in Iguala, massacres such as the June 2014 killing of 22 alleged criminals by military forces in Tlatlaya, and now the escape of “El Chapo” Guzmán. Repeatedly officials charged with obeying the law decided instead to flout or ignore it, whether out of greed, inadequacy, fear or revenge. Such deep-seated indifference to the essence of law — even by those who pretend to follow its letter — cannot be easily overcome. It will require decisive leadership willing not only to go after the criminals who defy the country's institutions from without but also those who for decades have been steadily corroding them from within.”

According to Speck, the recapture of “El Chapo,” who has already escaped once before from a Mexican maximum-security prison, could “help restore some credibility to an embattled government. But Mexican authorities should realize by now that even successful police and military operations will not bring an end to the impunity that infects government institutions.”

Is there a cure?

For the author of the study, the only viable solution left is for the government to conduct “thorough, impartial investigations, aired in open court and with firm sentences imposed for both operators and masterminds — no matter how powerful.”

“This is the only way to deter crime and restore faith in a state whose promises of security and justice still ring hollow to most of its citizens.”

El Chapo's most recent and spectacular escape, from the maximum security prison at Altiplano in the State of Mexico, was made through a 1.5 km-long tunnel. He first broke out of a penal facility in 2001 by hiding in a laundry cart. This time, the method was more sophisticated involving a tunnel dug “under his shower, extending nearly one mile, complete with ventilation and lighting.”

“The sensational escape is an embarrassment for the government of Enrique Peña Nieto, which heralded Guzman's capture as a major strike against organized crime in February 2014. Such a complex operation could not occur without professional assistance from both outside and in — plus large doses of willful ignorance. But it is far more than a blow to one president, government or political party. It further undermines Mexicans’ confidence that their public officials — from police to prosecutors to judges to prison wardens — can deliver on promises of security and justice,” writes Speck.

She notes the increase in security forces since 2006, the year in which then President Felipe Calderon launched the war on drug trafficking. The Army, for example, has grown from about 250,000 to 274,000 members, while the Federal Police went from about 13,000 to more than 40,000.

In an article published in the The Huffington Post, Speck says, “enforcement is just one leg of public security policy, however, which must also stand on prevention, justice and rehabilitation. Most of the municipal police charged with preventing crimes remain weak at best, corrupt or infiltrated at worst.”

The author goes on to underscore that the courts “are overwhelmed, incapable of providing timely, effective justice. Mexico has only four judges per 100,000 people, far fewer than the world average of 17 per 100,000, according to the Global Impunity Index. The prisons hold more than 230,000 inmates, 64,000 more than they were designed for.”

Speck warns that many of these inmates are “suspects awaiting trial, whose detention is likely to turn them into hardened criminals, without marketable skills, upon their release. Even the high-security federal prison of Altiplano chosen to hold Guzmán was overcapacity, according to news reports, and only one out of five inmates there had been convicted.”

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