Loose Lips Sink Ships

How El Chapo’s rookie error cost him his freedom

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is a Mexican crime lord and leader of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel, the group responsible for supplying a large amount of drugs to the US market, and the wider world. El Chapo has twice escaped from Mexican “high-security” prisons, firstly in 2001 when he escaped via a laundry cart and most recently in July 2015, when he evaded Mexican authorities and fled his cell through a sophisticated underground tunnel. The power of the crime boss cannot be doubted, but his recent capture showed the world that El Chapo might not be as crafty as the world had previously believed.

6 months after his 2015 escape, as El Chapo lay low in the coastal city of Los Mochis in northern Sinaloa, he was captured by Mexican marines after extended surveillance and communication monitoring. The raid did not go entirely to plan, with El Chapo and his lieutenant escaping through a tunnel which led to the city’s sewage system. Thereafter, the cartel boss stole a car before being captured 20km away, in the town of Juan Jose Rios, after officers refused his attempts to bribe them. As the world awoke to the news of the capture, the most baffling part of this tale was still to be uncovered.

After the capture, it began circulating that El Chapo had met with US actor Sean Penn and Mexican star Kate del Castillo several months prior to his arrest, after Castillo had written to the boss several times requesting an interview. In what was a completely unprecedented move for the cartel boss, who was previously known as a shy figure who continually denied his links to drug trafficking, El Chapo told Penn he had a “fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats” and that he supplied “more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world”.

Thereafter, Mexican officials confirmed that communications between the Mexican drug lord and the American actor had played a key role in locating El Chapo. Even prior to his eventual capture, Mexican authorities were able to track Guzmán several times, with the gangster narrowly managing to escape amidst a hail of gunfire. American authorities played an instrumental role in the process, intercepting phone calls between the pair and providing their Mexican counterparts with enough information to allow them to raid 18 known Guzmán residences in the months prior to his January capture. After these shocking details emerged, questions must be raised as to why El Chapo chose to jeopardise his already unstable position as a free man by speaking with such high profile celebrities.

El Chapo does not lack fame; in spite of his role as a leading drug supplier on a global scale, he has gained celebrity status in Mexico, being seen as a type of twisted Robin Hood figure who came from poverty and rose to fame. Both he and his cartel have been one step ahead of US authorities for decades, in spite of their huge budget and sophisticated tracking mechanisms, further augmenting his hero-like status in the country. In addition, Forbes magazine placed El Chapo as number 67 in the “2013’s Most Powerful People” list, estimating that his organisation was operating at an annual turnover of $3 billion.

El Chapo is a household name and well-known figure across the world, he did not require any further exposure and certainly did not lack cash. Perhaps his desire was to leave a lasting legacy in a similar manner to Al Capone, as it appears Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo were interested in directing a film about the Mexican’s life. Yet it seems unthinkable that such a high-profile fugitive would both communicate with, and be interviewed by, Hollywood actors. Mexican cartels have a strictly tight-lipped policy and very rarely offer interviews, only doing so with covered faces and skewed voices. Even then, those who have been interviewed are generally low-ranking members, street dealers and smugglers, certainly not those in leadership positions.

Ultimately, El Chapo can blame only himself for his capture. At this point, it does not seem that Sean Penn tipped off authorities in any way, or that anyone else involved with the interview gave information to authorities. “Loose lips sink ships” is an age-old saying, which denotes criminals’ requirement to embrace a code of silence regarding their activities. But never has such a statement been so relevant than in relation to El Chapo’s capture, particularly in an era when communications tracking is highly sophisticated and advanced. It is now up to Mexican authorities to retain the prisoner at the third attempt, a feat which is made more difficult by the fact that El Chapo’s bribes far exceed the salaries of prison guards. But with the US keen to extradite the Mexican cartel boss, the future looks bleak for El Chapo Guzmán, who’s ageing eyes may never live to see the mountains of Sinaloa, or oversee the transportation of the huge amount of drugs consumed by Americans, again.

A New Culture of Fear in the West

Teaching ground to a halt in Los Angeles this week, after all public schools in the area were closed due to a threat made via email, in which it was indicated that several schools were under threat of imminent attack. Ultimately, the threat turned out to be a hoax, but the severity of the LAPD’s reaction embodies a new culture of fear that has spread throughout many Western nations following last month’s attacks in Paris.

The widespread paranoia has spread like an evil plague, after the Paris attacks showed the world that we may not be as safe as we had assumed, even in our own neighbourhoods in cities of the West. Prior to this, whilst the regional strength of ISIS was not overlooked by the general public, the possibility of attacks of Western soil seemed like a mere fantasy of the Jihadi extremists, and not a genuine possibility. But the November attacks showed the world that even the simplest tasks, such as attending a football match or going for dinner as of a Friday evening, may not be as straightforward as we had previously believed.

Following the attacks, several cities have witnessed hyper-vigilant reactions to threats, which ultimately have not materialised. In Hanover, a few days after the Paris attacks, German authorities cancelled a football match between Germany and the Netherlands due to a last-minute threat which indicated that terrorists would target the match, as well as the city’s public transport system. Rumours spread across social media that an ambulance packed full of explosives have been found, and that arrests had been made by armed police within the city. In the end, the city remained peaceful; whether this can be attributed to the expertise of the German intelligence services is something we will never know, but it has transpired that no arrests were made, nor were any explosives uncovered.

In Brussels, unprecedented levels of military were deployed to the streets, after it was purportedly revealed that several terrorists were at large within the city, and were planning a Paris-style attack. The threat to Brussels was deemed to be “serious and immediate”, so much so that the city was placed on lockdown for four days. Undoubtedly, the Molenbleek district of the city was/is a hotbed for radicalisation and extremist tendencies, but the fact that the Brussels lockdown passed without incident must lead us to ask if the risk was exaggerated, amidst post-Paris paranoia.

These incidents, alongside developments from Los Angeles, display the level of fear Western authorities are dealing with as a result of the spread of terror, through the growth of ISIS. We read about global warfare every day in newspapers and on social media platforms, but the concept that we could be in the middle of it is a chilling thought, and one which is simply terrifying Westerners. Returning to the incident in Los Angeles, it has since transpired that authorities in New York were made aware of similar alleged plans at schools in the Big Apple, but quickly realised it was a hoax due to certain errors within the email. The fact that such errors were not noticed by their Californian counterparts illustrates that panic was able to cloud the judgement and rational thinking of a world-renowned intelligence service.

The problem faced at this point is a unique one; terrorist attacks which have occurred have generally been carried out by nationals, who have been radicalised overseas. The new “enemy within” is more difficult to both monitor and prevent, an additional factor which has instilled fear into Western citizens. Reports from inside Syria undoubtedly shock readers, but the concept of living amidst terrorist cells in Western Europe and the US puts people on edge, particularly in the wake of the widespread killing witnessed in Paris, a city which many tourists have visited and found themselves attached to. As a result, many were forced to accept the chilling reality that they could have been drinking outside Le Carillon bar when the attacks took place, or at the Bataclan theatre.

This plays directly into the hands of ISIS, who will thrive on causing fear within Western borders. ISIS, as any terrorist organisation would, recognise that fear equates to power, and the concept of their power spreading to European and American soil is music to their ears. Let us not overlook the fact that, on the grand scheme of things, ISIS is far from a militaristic superpower on the ground; they have no jets, their surface to air missiles are no match for coalition aircrafts and their weaponry is far from advanced. Therefore, the fact that, in spite of this, they have managed to spread fear throughout the Western world is an achievement in itself for the group. As well as this, it makes the propaganda released by the group seem more convincing than it otherwise would- promises to “liberate Istanbul” and “conquer Rome” would once have been brushed aside, but after the Paris attacks, many live in fear that such could be a reality we face.

The difficulty for authorities is preventing this spread, while still protecting their citizens. The necessary secrecy authorities must adopt in relation to these matters means that action such as the deployment of additional police officers or military personnel is likely to raise alarm that an attack is possible. Governments must work alongside the media in an attempt to prevent the spread of paranoia, as the press is often over-indulgent in their reporting of certain issues which may not even warrant reporting in the first place. Transparency is also key, and Governments should seek to keep citizens informed when possible, as well as working alongside police forces to reasonably identify genuine risks, and differentiate them from potential hoaxes.

We, as citizens, must not live in the state of fear craved by the extremists- ultimately this allows them the most precious victory of all; disruption of the Western way of life. We must continue to enjoy the beautiful cities we are blessed to live in, and make the most of opportunities to travel to others. While vigilance is wise, we must continue to defy terrorists by enjoying the freedom we have, one which they loathe and seek to destroy. It is fundamental to focus on winning the mental battle against ISIS; we are mentally stronger than the enemy and overwhelmingly more powerful. Let us use their evil to form new alliances, stand side by side and defy their most hateful objectives.