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"Chapo" Escape Should Lead to Drug Law Reform, Advocates Say

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán's brazen escape last week from a maximum-security Mexican prison prompted anger from U.S. officials. Advocates who want to see changes to drug laws argue now is the time to reassess current policies.

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Corruption. Extradition. Border violence. Those were the standard talking-point topics by Texas lawmakers following Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán's brazen escape last week from a maximum-security Mexican prison.

Now, some advocates hope to add “drug policy reform” to the list, arguing that Guzmán’s catapult back to power of the Sinaloa cartel should lead to new discussions on how much outlawing drugs empowers the world's most ruthless drug lords.

Organizations like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, or LEAP, a worldwide group whose members include current and former peace officers, prosecutors and correctional officers, wasted little time in sounding the alarms about a possible increase in violence after Guzmán’s escape.

Rusty White, a former correctional officer, K9 handler and watchtower sniper who is one of LEAP’s 17 Texas-based members, said Guzmán's escape could escalate a war with rival cartels that sought to gain traction in disputed turf after Guzmán's arrest in February 2014.

"Chapo’s been controlling the borders of the United States forever. Now that he's back out, with whoever he put in place, there's [likely] going to be more violence when the power struggle starts again," he said.

He added of law enforcement officials: "Someday, these people are going to have to look in the mirror, like all of us did, and realize we were part of the problem and not part of the solution.” 

Guzmán's disappearance makes him the world's most-wanted criminal once again. The Mexican government has offered a $3.8 million reward for his capture. And his escape through a mile-long channel has increased tensions between Mexico and the United States and permanently stained Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's legacy. Guzmán is still wanted in the United States and remains on the most-wanted list for the Drug Enforcement Agency’s El Paso division.

Advocates pushing to decriminalize drugs concede they face an uphill battle in the United States, but they say Guzmán's escape has prompted a conversation. While there is significant opposition to legalizing drugs like cocaine and heroin, support is growing for loosening marijuana laws. 

A study by the Pew Research Center in April showed that 53 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legal. That's compared with 12 percent in 1969. 

White said legalizing marijuana in Colorado and Washington has already proved effective as a hit to the cartels’ pocketbooks.

“In the case of most drug dealers, regulated pot would take away about 60 percent of their profits right away,” said Ana Yáñez-Correa, the executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, which lobbies for changes to drug policies and incarceration standards.

“It’s time that Texas takes a look and do it in a way that’s going to make sense," she said.

Changing laws on marijuana would affect the lives of the 73,000 Texans arrested every year for pot crimes, Yáñez-Correa added, citing Department of Public Safety data.

Guzmán’s escape came the same week President Obama pushed a new White House agenda on criminal justice reform. 

“Meaningful sentencing reform, steps to reduce repeat offenders and reform of the juvenile justice system are crucial to improving public safety, reducing runaway incarceration costs and making our criminal justice system more fair,” a White House spokesperson said in a statement.

U.S. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that while he supports some criminal justice overhauls, he said drug policies are generally left to states because federal agencies concentrate on going after larger criminal networks.

“I think what we will weigh on is to make sure the penalty fits the crime,” he said. “I suspect we’ll be looking at all of that, [but] I don’t think we’ll be looking at legalization effort. I think that would send the wrong message, although I understand the argument.”

Texas could be one of the best testing grounds on whether illegal trafficking would decline if lawmakers changed drug laws. According to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security, there were more than 2.36 million pounds of drugs seized in the 2014 budget year on the Southwest border, with just more than 1.02 million pounds seized in Texas. That’s just below Arizona’s 1.12 million and is well above California’s 183,100 and New Mexico’s 48,000.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, said that since Guzmán’s escape, it was reasonable to be concerned about violence in El Paso’s sister city, Ciudad Juárez. Before Guzmán’s arrest in 2014, the kingpin’s Sinaloa cartel participated in a years-long battle with the Juárez cartel for control of the lucrative smuggling routes that extend from Chihuahua to West Texas and beyond. Thousands were killed from 2008 to 2011. In response, O’Rourke in 2011 co-authored with Susie Byrd, his former colleague on the El Paso City Council, Dealing Death and Drugs, a book about marijuana prohibition and its outcomes.

Guzmán’s successes were partially funded by sales of marijuana, O'Rourke said, calling it a “cornerstone of the U.S. drug trade.”

“Anyone who buys [illegal] marijuana in the U.S. is contributing to the problems like the ones we saw in Juárez,” he said. “So I am really grateful to LEAP and [pro-reform group] the Drug Policy Alliance. Part of the way you get at the Chapo Guzmáns is through drug policy.”

Yáñez-Correa suggested it will take lawmakers with nerve to change the current politics in Texas, though very small steps have been taken.

In May, a Texas House committee approved House Bill 2165, by state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, which would have legalized the use and delivery of marijuana. But it was a symbolic vote, and the legislation never made it to the lower chamber’s floor.

“Politicians are listening to their consultants, and their consultants are telling them, ‘You don’t want to take a position on pot because we don’t know how people feel about it,’” Yáñez-Correa said. “But the polls say something different.” 

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