Mexico’s leader has claimed notorious drug cartel kingpin Joaquin Guzman – better known as El Chapo – wielded the power of a president up until his most recent imprisonment.
In a New Year’s speech Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office in December last year on an anti-corruption platform, celebrated his administration’s efforts to root out those in high office who were found to have been under the thumb of El Chapo’s deadly Sinaloa cartel.
“There was a time when Guzman Loera was as powerful, or had the influence, that the president had at that time,” he told an audience in the southern city of Palenque. “That made it hard to punish those who had committed crimes. That is now history.”
His comments come a month after the arrest of Genaro Garcia Luna, a former Mexican government official responsible for public security, was charged in the United States with accepting millions of dollars in bribes from the Sinaloa drug cartel once run by Guzman.
However his administration has stopped short of investigating former President Felipe Calderon, who led the country at the time and was accused of accepting a $100m bribe from the Sinaloa cartel kingpin himself in the 2019 US trial of el Chapo.
Mr Lopez Obrador’s “abrazos no balazos” – hugs not bullets – strategy to fighting cartel violence with social reforms and poverty-tackling initiatives helped elevate him to the presidency in 2018, offering a change in pace from his two predecessors who deployed hardline solutions to the war on crime in the country.
However his approach has been put under strain by the continued supremacy of cartels – with the botched operation to apprehend of El Chapo’s son Ovidio Guzman, who was freed shortly after his arrest when hundreds of gunmen razed the area around their base in Culiacan, held up as an example of his non-confrontational policy in action.
Meanwhile the country continued to experience surging violence during Mr Lopez Obrador’s first year in office, with more than 17,000 people killed in the first half of the year, and 127 killed on 1 December alone.
Lopez Obrador acknowledged in his speech on Tuesday that his government had work to do, particularly in curbing rampant violence, but described his anti-corruption drive as a point of pride.
“We are purifying public life so there is moral authority,” he added.
Guzman was sentenced last year to life in prison without parole and moved to a high-security facility in Colorado after being convicted in a US court of smuggling tons of drugs to the United States over a decades-long career.
His sentencing followed two high-profile prison breaks from maximum security Mexican prisons, as well as his 15-year effort to avoid an international manhunt after fleeing his cell in Jalisco in 2001.
His second escape in 2015 saw El Chapo break out of prison through a 1.5km tunnel in the shower area of his cell.