Story highlights

Analysts say government corruption enabled the escape of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman

An annual ranking lists Mexico among the world's most corrupt countries

Before Guzman's escape, several corruption scandals riled Mexicans

(CNN) —  

Shocked, but not surprised.

That’s how many Mexicans responded as word spread that notorious cartel kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman busted out of a maximum-security prison in a brazen escape.

Details about the mile-long tunnel Guzman apparently used for his getaway have dominated the headlines. But corruption, analysts told CNNMexico, was ultimately the key that unlocked the drug lord’s cell.

“We are angry because there is a problem of impunity related directly to corruption, and the authorities have not taken the necessary measures,” said Maria Elena Morera, an activist who heads an organization pushing for better security policies. “This exposes us to the world.”

Criticism of widespread government corruption in Mexico is nothing new. But a series of scandals in the past year already had top Mexican officials in the hot seat. And Guzman’s escape, experts say, shines an even harsher spotlight on a problem that historically has stretched from police on the streets to the highest halls of power.

How bad is it?

Just how corrupt is Mexico, and how does it compare to other countries? To get an idea, there’s an annual ranking that’s a good place to start.

In a map published by Transparency International, Mexico juts out in bright red – a stark contrast to its neighbors to the north. It’s a visual representation of Transparency International’s annual corruption perception index, which ranks countries based on what people in the private sector say about their governments.

In the words of Alejandro Salas, the organization’s regional director for the Americas, Mexico has a “horrible position” in the ranking.

The country came in 103rd place out of 175 nations – tied with Boliva, Moldova and Niger – in last year’s survey, with a score of 35 on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). The least corrupt country, Denmark, scored a 92. The United States came in 17th place with a score of 74.

“In Mexico corruption continues to be a huge problem,” Salas said. It’s hard to tell if the situation is getting worse, he said, but it’s definitely not getting better.

The country’s criminal justice system consistently gets low marks, he said. Of the more than 1,000 Mexicans who responded to a 2013 survey from Transparency International, 90% said police were corrupt or extremely corrupt, and 80% felt the same way about the country’s judiciary.

More than 60% of people said someone in their household had paid a bribe to police in the past year. And more than half said someone in their household had forked out a bribe in court.

The numbers will likely be worse next time the survey goes out, Salas said. Guzman’s escape, he said, sends a powerful message.

“It sends you this bad signal, that actually, the authorities are not in control. … The signal it sends to you is that the democratic institutions of the country are not working,” he said. “So who is going to believe now in the Mexican justice system, the Mexican prison system, or in the political authorities that are responsible for this?”

Recent scandals fuel concerns

The drug lord’s prison break isn’t the only thing that’s eroded some Mexicans’ faith in their government.

Two recent high-profile scandals from the past year remain fresh in the minds of many.

In September, 43 students were kidnapped and killed in southern Mexico, an operation authorities say was orchestrated by a local mayor who didn’t want a protest to disrupt one of his events. Investigators said the students were abducted by police on the mayor’s orders, then turned over to a gang that’s believed to have killed them and burned their bodies before throwing some remains in a river. The case sparked national protests as outraged citizens said they were fed up with the government and how it was handling the crisis.

In November, an investigative report from Mexican news website Aristegui Noticias alleged that Mexico’s President and his wife had been living in a lavish $7 million mansion owned by a contractor that’s won lucrative government projects. In response, the government said first lady Angélica Rivera had been making payments on the house with money she’d made from her acting career. It wasn’t long before Rivera announced she was selling the house, but the controversy over the matter is still simmering.

And now, Guzman’s escape.

“This act cannot be downplayed. The most wanted criminal of the last generation got out of the prison that is presumably the most secure in the country,” Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope told CNN en Español. “This is a severe blow to the government and it is a severe blow to society.”

And for Mexico’s President, Hope said, the price could be steep.

“The escape is going to cost the President. Pressure is going to mount on him personally, and on his government, to make changes,” he said.

Words vs. actions

Things looked more promising at the beginning of Peña Nieto’s presidency. His campaign stump speeches and platforms listed stamping out corruption as a top goal. At the time, he was trying to win more support from skeptics who feared putting his political party back in charge. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) ruled Mexico for decades, its grip on power so strong that there was a widely known term – the dedazo – to describe how leaders would hand-pick their successors no matter what happened at the polls.

Peña Nieto succeeded in calming concerns about his party, winning the election as he vowed to usher in a new era in Mexican politics. Earlier in his presidency, he won praise for taking on some of the country’s most established institutions, like the Pemex state-run oil company and the national teacher’s union.

Amid the outcry over the slain students last year, he proposed a reforms once again, including a constitutional change that would give the state control over local police as part of efforts to fight corruption.

But now, Salas said, many people are beginning to seriously question whether the President ever had the political will to press forward.

“Of course, one thing is to propose laws and discuss institutions. … But you need to continue showing in tangible ways that you are actually committed to it,” he said. “We keep having these scandals that make one doubt the whole discourse.”

In drug lord’s escape, how far did corruption go?

Even though authorities are still investigating the details behind Guzman’s escape, there’s little doubt that he had help inside and outside the prison to pull off the daring plan.

“I think the question really is how far up did the corruption go?” said journalist Ioan Grillo, author of “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency.” “Was it simply a couple of guards who were bribed, or did it go higher up the chain?”

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Mexican Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong says some workers inside the prison must have played a role, and the prison’s director has been fired.

As reporters grilled him over Guzman’s escape, Osorio Chong said he understood the frustration aimed at the government, but he argued that fighting corruption has long been a top priority of the administration. And he noted that the reason surveillance cameras didn’t record Guzman’s escape was because they had two “blind spots” due to human rights requirements authorities had to follow.

The claim drew a swift rebuke from Amnesty International. In a Twitter post addressed to the interior minister, the human rights organization’s Mexico office fired back.

“Human rights are not a factor in the escape of criminals,” it said, “but rather the endemic corruption of the security system.”

Even before Guzman’s escape, corruption among high-ranking officials could have played a role in how the case was handled, influencing Mexican authorities’ decision to block Guzman’s extradition to the United States, CNN law enforcement analyst Tom Fuentes said.

“At a certain level, the Mexican government is very afraid of him, because of the extensiveness of the corruption in that country that supports him and the other cartels,” Fuentes said. “They’re afraid if he came to the U.S. and was looking at Supermax and life without parole, he might just give it up and do a lot of damage to the Mexican government.”

Now, Mexico’s top officials seem to be offering excuses and describing the escape as an isolated incident rather than owning up to rampant corruption in their ranks, Francisco Rivas of the National Citizen Observatory for Security Justice and Legality said in a post on the organization’s website.

“I was left with a terrible doubt,” he said, “about whether the cartel is more powerful than the Mexican government.”