El Chapo Escapes From Mexican Prison

Guzman arrest 2014

Guzman being led into custody at the time of his 2014 arrest;
Image courtesy of Federal Bureau of Investigation

El Chapo Escapes From Mexican Prison
| published July 12, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

The man who authorities in more than a dozen countries say was once one of the wealthiest men in the world—drug lord and criminal cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman—has done the impossible (or at least what the Mexican government said was impossible) by escaping from prison for the second time in his career as a top narcotics trafficker.

Guzman, the head of the so-called Sinaloa Cartel, eluded prison guards and security personnel during a routine visit to the prison’s showers and bathrooms, where after a few minutes he apparently evaded the nearly-omnipresent video surveillance system and vanished. Authorities say they have no immediate trace of Guzman, buy they believed he escaped through a narrow tunnel more than a mile in length. Guzman slipped from the maximum security prison in the short time he was not observed by guards or on videotape. Guzman was last seen a few minutes after 9 p.m., and about five minutes after he entered the shower area.

According to media reports and sketchy official statements, hundreds of roads have been closed, airports placed on lockdown, bus stations sealed off, and intersections manned by military and Mexican police in the hope of strangling any possible escape route from the area. All airline flights have been cancelled at the airports closest to the prison. Officials in Mexico City say that the federal police have launched the largest manhunt in Mexican history in an effort to recapture Guzman.

Guzman is believed to have—in recent years—been worth more than $1.5 billion, much of it in cash and other liquid assets. In the 1990s, after the fall of Columbian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (worth $1 billion at the time of his arrest and trial), Guzman’s cartel systematically consolidated power and eliminated its competition through a bloody and violent gang war that still rages today. By some estimates, Mexico’s drug and gang violence has taken the lives of more than 100,000 people, and a vast percentage of those deaths came during confrontations between the Sinaloa Cartel and its most fierce competitors. Before his most recent arrest, in early 2014, Guzman’s criminal reach was thought to extend to all parts of Europe, South America, North America and parts of Asia, with criminal outposts as far away as New Zealand, Australia, Iceland, and Scotland.

The Sinaloa Cartel’s battles with both police and the cartel’s gangland competitors wreaked its greatest damage along Mexico’s border with the United States, where some cities and towns became killing fields, and remain violent even now. The FBI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency estimate that Guzman has been responsible for more than half the illegal drugs entering the U.S. over the last 12 years. Street gangs and drug dealers loyal to Guzman’s operation could be found in scores of major U.S. cities.

Guzman was first apprehended in Guatemala in 1993, where he was extradited and sent back to Mexico City. After spending seven years in prison, and using the promise of large sums of cash, he enlisted the help of prison guards and escaped, apparently by way of the prison laundry service. While on the loose, he reasserted control of his former criminal domain, after which he unleashed a violent war with other drug gangs and cartels across Mexico and into Central America. Flush with cash from drug sales, Guzman paid off top cops and bought (or threatened) judges in scores of jurisdictions, and sought to eliminate much of his south-of-the-border competition, especially in those areas along the U.S. border. Violence in border towns reached epic levels during the early and middle aught years, as gangs fought a brutal war over turf and control of points of entry into Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California. Thousands died, including civilians and police, in the daily battles.

Guzman was later apprehended in 2014 after a complex and elaborate chase across Mexico, which ended in a luxury condo in the Pacific coast town of Mazatlan. Under intensive and heavy guard, Guzman was transferred to the federal prison outside Toluca, one of the country’s most secure, and was housed in a special unit believed to be escape-proof. Major negotiations between the United States and Mexico were still under way as to whether to extradite Guzman to the U.S. for prosecution, or to conduct his criminal trials in Mexico.

Guzman’s escape is a major setback for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, a reformer who had campaigned on a broad promise to clean up corruption and bring peace and economic stability back to Mexico. In his campaign, Pena Nieto has said that by ending the reign of the cartels, and by eradicating lawlessness, economic growth—and along with it new jobs—would pave the way for a renewal of Mexico and an assertion of its rightful place in a global economy.

As Presdient, Pena Nieto was able to score some early and visible successes, through widespread arrests, aggressive political and judicial reforms, and several top-down restructurings of law enforcement, but the young President ran headlong into problems back in 2014 as violence began to increase again. In September, 43 students and youths were murdered by some combination of local police and regional gang members in Iguala, a Guerrero city about halfway between Mexico City and the Pacific Ocean. The students were hacked to death, and their bodies were burned in a mass grave in a remote garbage dump. The order to round up and murder the students is believed to have come from the wife of the Iguala mayor, a mayor known to have direct links to the drug cartels. The incident was followed by mass demonstrations all across Mexico, and calls for Pena Nieto to do more to stop the drug cartels and their unfortunate adjunct—extreme violence.

Guzman’s escape may prove problematic as well for Pena Nieto and his promise of reform, especially if Guzman is able to return to a life among the cartels. But it may also prove troubling for the United States. Guzman, some FBI and DEA officials believe, will likely be back in his role as boss of the Sinaloa Cartel within days. In 2014, numerous law enforcement experts and street gang analysts believed that in a world without Guzman, street violence might increase as the former components of his extensive operation began to fight amongst one another for control.

In reality, the backbone of Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel have remained intact, even as new violence has erupted in U.S. cities with large drug sales operations known to have direct connections to Guzman. In Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis and Milwaukee, to name four notable examples, street crime and murder have spiked sharply in early and mid-2015. Some American police officials say that the increase in violence in those cities has a direct investigatory lineage to U.S. gangs with narcotic operations linked to the Sinaloa Cartel.

But there is the contrary opinion that the 2015 spikes in street violence is limited largely to only certain cities. Several major cities have seen a substantial decline this year, including New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Indianapolis—all cities which at one time had drug traffickers with direct connections to Guzman on the streets.

Meanwhile, Mexican officials say that they will use whatever resources it takes to recapture Guzman. Officials in the U.S., Panama, Columbia and Guatemala all offered assistance to Mexico in the massive manhunt. Most train, cab and bus service had been halted in the areas near the prison, and all air traffic had been grounded. Only military helicopters could be seen leaving or arriving at the airport.

Federal police and investigators say that the tunnel he used for his escape was dug from outside the prison, and at more than one mile in length, the sophisticated and well-engineered tunnel illustrates the resources Guzman was able to employ even from inside Mexico’s most secure federal prison. Mexican officials say that construction of the tunnel may have required some dozen or more workers, and could have taken more than a year to construct. Guzman slipped from the shower area into the tunnel by way of a small hole measuring 20 inches across, which had been carefully cut through the tile from the outside. Federal officers have detained at least 18 employees of the prison. Those employees will be subjected to questioning to determine if they had any involvement in Guzman’s elaborate escape.

Fears that Guzman would again escape had been a consistent part of the conversations between U.S. prosecutors and Mexican law enforcement for more than a year. Mexican officials had rebuffed numerous U.S. requests for extradition, and some Mexican politicians and law enforcement chiefs said it was a matter of pride that Guzman stand trial in Mexico, the country Guzman considered his base of criminal operation.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Once Upon (This) Time in Mexico; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 29, 2014.

Two Nations, Indivisible, Shannon K. O’Neil; book review; Thursday Review; January 9, 2014.