The first time Joaquín Guzmán escaped from a Mexican prison, in 2001, he was just a gangster. But during the 13 years he remained at large, drug trafficking grew into such an extraordinary menace south of the border that El Chapo, Spanish for Shorty, took on the dimensions of myth. Educated to the third grade, he became both a billionaire while on the lam and the world’s best-known drug lord. The Sinaloa Cartel he commanded grew into the largest, most rapacious enterprise in an underworld that operated with such impunity it challenged the state itself. Guzmán’s capture, in February 2014, was a momentous event in the history of modern Mexico because it signaled, after a period of some doubt, the primacy of the country’s national government. And his latest escape, on July 11, calls that primacy into question once again.
With Mexico, the question is always, Who’s in charge here? On paper, the answer was whosoever the people placed in power. But you can’t always believe what you read. For seven decades, political control was perpetuated by the PRI, the Spanish-language acronym for the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The name–institutional and revolutionary?–fairly clanged with cynicism, and the corruption of the ruling structure extended to a drug trade that thrived in Mexico at least from the days in the 1940s when the U.S. Army allegedly imported opium, after Japan endangered its Asian sources of battlefield morphine.
The paradox is that things worsened after the country embraced political reform. The bloody chaos that exploded around the drug trade after the 2000 electoral loss of the PRI was, in no small part, fallout from the long-overdue demise of single-party rule and its stabilizing architecture. With the PRI out of office, narcotraffickers fought viciously against one another and the state in grotesquely violent conflicts that have killed more than 80,000 people since 2007, according to a government count. (Some independent researchers say the toll is more than 1½ times that.) It was war, and the U.S. joined in, sending matériel, drones and streams of intelligence that on Feb. 22, 2014, located El Chapo in the Mazatlán condo where Mexican marines placed him under arrest.
They had been close before. Days earlier, as marines closed in on a safe house, Guzmán slipped into a bathroom, pushed a button, waited while the bathtub lifted into the air, then disappeared into the tunnel underneath. Tunnels are pretty much standard equipment in the world of Mexican drug trafficking, a trend Guzmán is credited with starting. Since 2006, U.S. authorities have detected at least 80 beneath the southern border, many reinforced, ventilated and electrified. Tunnels are very difficult to detect–Israel, which innovates constantly in military industries, has yet to find a way to tell where Hamas is digging out of Gaza–but it helps to know where to look. Prisons are a logical area to keep an eye peeled.
His escape brings Mexico back to a place it intended to leave behind, the cartoon realm of oily Federales and desperate villagers. “I told you so!” Donald Trump crowed on Twitter. The reality–plain enough to the over 25 million Americans who in 2014 visited there, more than any other foreign country–is that the U.S. shares not only a 1,954-mile (3,145 km) border with Mexico but also entwined economies, populations and responsibility for the drug trade, which is driven after all by relentless American demand. The cartel wars have occasionally bled into the border states, but their product reaches even deeper into the U.S. Guzmán was just renamed Public Enemy No. 1 in Chicago, where his cartel supplies as much as 80% of the city’s illicit drugs. American gangs take it from there.
U.S. officials say they are keen to join the hunt but have been kept at bay by the Mexican government, which is back in the hands of the PRI. President Enrique Peña Nieto campaigned on a vow to reduce drug violence and redefine Mexico as a modern economic success story. “This escape shows the problems are deep down and affect the whole system, whoever is in power,” says Alejandro Hope, a former member of Mexico’s federal intelligence agency. “The discussion now has to be about mending Mexico’s broken institutions.”
–With reporting by IOAN GRILLO/MEXICO CITY
This appears in the July 27, 2015 issue of TIME.