‘El Chapo’ is on the run again: should Australia be concerned?
24 Aug 2015|

Mexico City from the airport

On 11 July, Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, the Mexican drug lord and leader of the Sinaloa cartel—arguably the world’s most powerful drug syndicate—escaped Altiplano maximum security prison in Mexico after being arrested in February last year for a second time.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t Guzman’s debut escape from a Mexican prison. Previously captured in 1993, Guzman first broke out of jail in 2001 in a laundry cart. This time, a 1.5 km tunnel took him directly from his cell’s shower block to the streets of Mexico. More than a month after an unfruitful manhunt, the Drug Enforcement Administration has established a tip line, believing Guzman is still in Sinaloa.

The last time he escaped prison, Guzman was determined to use his vision and innovation to dominate the US illicit drug market. With that under his belt, expansion seems a no-brainer for a savvy illegal entrepreneur such as ‘El Chapo’. Guzman has Australia in his sights and its lucrative drug market is a temptation.

Worryingly, it’s not just drug prices enticing Guzman to reach Australian shores. Aussies’ love affair with drugs helped to earn the nation the title of the world’s top recreational drug users in 2014. According to this year’s UNODC World Drug Report, Australia makes the top ten in drug use per capita in every drug type including cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy and Amphetamine-Type Stimulants (ATS).

Guzman’s criminal organisation sells more drugs today than Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel did in its best days. The Sinaloa cartel supplies nearly one quarter of all illegal drugs into the US. It’s the largest methamphetamine and marijuana supplier to the US market, and one of the largest of cocaine. Its estimated profits reach US$3 billion per year—an income that surpasses some African nations’ entire GDP.

Guzman understood early in his career that his drug business wouldn’t be sustainable if it was exclusively cocaine and marijuana-driven. Trading crystal methamphetamine gave ‘El Chapo’ an advantage over his competitors, and now he controls 80% of the US’ ‘ice’ market.

The Sinaloa cartel was the first to design and construct tunnels into the US to smuggle drugs. It also had family members hired as US border agents, and has even used catapults to transport narcotics across high-tech fences at the US–Mexican border.

With evidence that there’s only two drug cartels left operating in Mexico, Guzman’s organisation has distanced itself from violent domestic competition, and is moving towards building international tactical alliances. Fighting former President Felipe Calderon’s war against drugs tested Guzman’s business resilience, but not without financial cost. With a high level of financial incentive here in Australia, Guzman’s profit-driven criminal organisation has sufficient reason to gravitate towards the land down under.

The Sinaloa cartel’s presence in Australia is progressively seen through the proliferation of ‘ice’. In an earlier Strategist post, I highlighted concerns about the increasing internationalisation of ‘ice’ trafficking in Australia. More recently, the UNODC’s The Challenge of Synthetic Drugs in East and South-East Asia and Oceania (PDF) reported Mexican drug cartels’ links to the growing ‘ice’ trade in Australia. In addition, last year, Australian Crime Commission CEO Chris Dawson stressed his concerns about organised criminal groups increasingly targeting Australia—with particular reference to Mexican ones.

Australia’s reputation as a distant market is a thing of the past for Latin American drug syndicates. Our illicit drug market is increasingly tangled in a vast and complex global network where channels for drug supply and demand mingle. The driving forces behind the Sinaloa cartel constitute a significant threat to the nation.

Guzman has been successful exploiting free trade agreements to move his products across borders. He understands that where free trade goes, drugs can follow. The free trade agreement between Canada, Mexico and the US demonstrates this. Mexico and Australia are expected to strengthen their trade flow via the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement in the near future. Thus, while some are wondering what the TPP can deliver to Australia, drugs could unintentionally be one of the items on the list.

The good news is that Sinaloa’s cartel isn’t a distant target for Australia’s law enforcement agencies anymore. Joint operations have led to increasing Mexican-originated drug seizures and drug syndicate disruptions on Australian soil. But, under our new border model which rather than a physical line our border is a continuum that stretches from overseas to our maritime zones and our domestic environment, rapid response enforcement and interdiction must place precedence on tackling drug trafficking before it reaches Australian shores.

The Australian Border Force (ABF) now has a more active role in delivering on national, international, regional and local border protection, law enforcement and national security priorities. As such, Guzman’s intentions to set his flag in Australia must spark a re-thinking of how our border protection international engagement is prioritised, implemented and assessed in order to prevent an influx of narcotics from international drug syndicates.