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Crime, Morality, and El Chapo

In this essay, Daniel Núñez examines the prison escape of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera using the theories of Durkheim and Merton to illustrate the sociological relationship between crime and morality.

After Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera escaped from prison in 2015, public opinion in Mexico was apparently divided. For some people, El Chapo’s escape represented a terrible transgression of the moral order and the complete failure of Mexico’s justice system to preserve it. In a video addressing the Mexican people after the incident, President Enrique Peña Nieto referred to El Chapo as “a criminal” and to his escape as “a very deplorable act that outrages Mexican society.” For others, however, El Chapo’s escape seemed to have a heroic flavor to it. Many people in the state of Sinaloa, where El Chapo’s hometown of Badiraguato is located, for example, celebrated the escape and expressed their admiration for El Chapo quite openly. The joy was such that only three days after the escape “dozens” of narcocorridos (i.e. celebratory ballads) were already being dedicated to it.

Morality, Crime, and Durkheim

Although there are many factors that explain Mexico’s mixed reaction to El Chapo’s escape, the divide illustrates an old sociological relationship between morality and crime or acts of deviance more broadly. In his foundational and highly influential work, The Division of Labor in Society, published in 1893, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim put forward a rare view of crime that many people might still find striking nowadays. Going against the common view of crime as something that should never happen, Durkheim argued that a certain level of crime was normal and even necessary for a human society to remain “healthy.” He believed that every human society builds inalienable moral boundaries that define what is right and what is wrong, and that these moral boundaries need to be periodically reinvigorated over time.

Crimes play a crucial role in this reinvigorating process because they reveal that the moral boundaries that a society sees almost as sacred can actually be transgressed, a revelation that pushes the members of the society in question to punish the transgression in order to restore their belief in the sanctity of the moral order. From this perspective, a society with no crime can only exist in our imaginations, given that societies will always need to define certain acts as criminal in order to distinguish clearly what they consider right from what they consider wrong. In theory, a crimeless society would have no clear notion of this moral separation. Because of its emphasis on the function that crime plays in a society, this approach is commonly referred to as the “functionalist” theory of crime.

Strain Theory and the Structural Sources of Deviance

Almost fifty years after Durkheim published his book, another sociologist put forward a theory that would become very influential in the worlds of sociology and criminology. Going against the prevailing approach of the time that saw criminal behavior as originating from individual biological dispositions, Robert K. Merton (1938) argued that deviance in general could be partly explained by certain structural factors in a society. He believed that human societies define cultural goals and establish conventional institutionalized means to achieve those goals, but that the disintegration between means and goals can push individuals to engage in acts that go against morally prescribed notions of accepted behavior. Hence, for example, a society can define the cultural goal of owning a house as a symbol of success in life and establish education and hard work as the acceptable means to attain that goal. In practice, however, not all members of a society may have access to education or jobs that pay enough to buy a house, while the pressure to attain the house as a sign of success or even of human worth remains strong. For these people, to engage in behavior that is institutionally regarded as deviant, like stealing from others, for example, can seem normal or even necessary.

To illustrate his “strain theory,” Merton used the emergence of the mafia in the working-class areas of Chicago. In a cultural context that exalted material gain as the ultimate goal in life, it was only normal for working-class individuals who had no access to high-paying jobs to look for other means to achieve that goal. Notorious mafia figures like Al Capone, for example, were simply responding “innovatively” to the tension between the goals defined by the dominant materialistic culture and the lack of institutional means to achieve them. “Within this context,” Merton (1938, p. 679) observed, “Capone represents the triumph of amoral intelligence over morally prescribed ‘failure.’”

Durkheim and Merton’s sociological theories of crime shed light on Mexico’s mixed reaction to El Chapo’s escape. Born into a poor family in a region with little to no prospects for social mobility, Merton would say that El Chapo is just an innovator who found an alternate, albeit illegal and considered by many immoral way of surviving and achieving the culturally established goal of accumulating wealth and power. This is in fact how El Chapo describes his involvement in the drug business at a young age in an interview published by Rolling Stone magazine. In Badiraguato, he tells us, “up until today, there are no job opportunities. The only way to have money to buy food, to survive, is to grow poppy, marijuana, and at that age [15], I began to grow it, to cultivate it and to sell it.” In a context where the high levels of inequality and lack of social mobility persist, and where there is a widespread perception of government corruption, some people see El Chapo as a criminal who should spend the rest of his life behind bars, but others see him as a modern-day Robin Hood who has heroically cheated an unfair system to establish himself as one of the most powerful people on the planet. As Durkheim once taught us, the act of labeling someone as a “criminal” has a lot to do with that person’s actions, but also with how people morally define themselves in relation to others.

Dig Deeper:

  1. One can extrapolate Durkheim’s view of crime as functional to any other issue in a society. But if everything in a society is “functional,” how does social change occur?
  2. If a certain level of crime is necessary for a society to remain “healthy,” as Durkheim argued, how do we determine that level?
  3. Does Merton’s labeling of criminal practices in Chicago during the 1930s as “normal” and as “innovative” change your moral attitude towards them? Why yes or why not?
  4. What does Merton’s view of crime tell us about government policies that address crimes? Should policies be directed towards individuals or towards the social structures that shape the actions of individuals?


  • Durkheim, Émile. 1893/1966. The Division of Labor in Society. The Free Press.
  • Merton, Robert K. 1938. “Social Structure and Anomie,” American Sociological Review 3(5): 672-682.