No, drug kingpin Chapo Guzman’s escape from prison shouldn’t come as a surprise

REUTERS/PGR/Handout
Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman is seen during his detention in Mexico City.

How on earth could Mexican authorities let Chapo Guzman escape? Again.

Sure, Mexico’s law enforcement and judicial systems have a well-earned reputation for inefficiency and corruption. But the hunt for the country’s drug kingpins has scored notable successes in recent years. From a list of 37 top drug traffickers published by the government in 2009, 33 were killed or detained as of a few months ago. 

At the time, that included Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s most powerful. He was arrested in early 2014 after 13 years on the lam following a previous jail break (the popular story is that he rode out that time in a laundry cart). This time, he was thrown in the maximum security Altiplano prison, home to a number of other captured cartel figures. No one had ever escaped.

President Enrique Pena Nieto said soon after Guzman landed at Altiplano that letting him break out of prison again would be unpardonable.

Well …

Guzman had long been known for using tunnels to avoid capture, and to move drugs. Security is so tight for visitors to Altiplano, according this report, that male lawyers visiting their clients must have their underwear checked; women must remove their bras.

So Mexican officials are having a hard time explaining the 20-by-20 inch entrance in Guzman’s shower (the only area of his cell where he was not under continual surveillance), leading to a nearly mile-long tunnel equipped with oxygen and lighting. 

He disappeared Saturday night, adding to the lore surrounding his larger-than-life persona and escapades, deeply embarrassing the Mexican government and angering U.S. officials who feared such a scenario and wanted him extradited.

It also drew a triumphal “I told you so” from Donald Trump, who has been shaking up the field of Republican presidential hopefuls with his immigrant bashing and criticisms of Mexico.

The United States has helped Mexico track and capture a number of high-level cartel figures, including probably Guzman. It has spent heavily in recent years to help reform the country’s criminal justice system. 

Guzman, whose given name is Joaquin, faces several indictments in the U.S. The City of Chicago named him its Public Enemy No. 1 in 2013, the first time it had used that designation since Al Capone. Now it is set to do that all over again.

As a point of pride and national sovereignty, it’s understandable why Mexico would want to prosecute Guzman first, rather than shipping him north to face charges in the United States.

But in retrospect, maybe a bit of injured pride is preferable to the embarrassment of seeing Guzman on the loose again?

And there may be more to it than that. According to one expert quoted in this Dallas Morning News article, Guzman probably knows too much about high-level corruption in Mexico, and officials wouldn’t want him talking to the Americans about it.

The Altiplano prison also may not be the fortress it’s portrayed to be. This report provides a rare look inside, and an introduction to its director, Marissa Quintanilla, who stresses rehabilitation – even at a maximum security prison holding the likes of Guzman. Reports cited by the Washington Post, which the Mexican government denied, said that Guzman, despite being in solitary confinement, had helped organize an inmate hunger strike last year for better conditions.

Then, there is the corruption. Mexico has some top-notch units tracking the cartel leaders, particularly its marines. But the quality of its police and armed forces, and its judicial system are wildly uneven. It seems pretty obvious to most analysts that Guzman had inside help. In Mexico, there are so many ways it can happen.

For instance, two years ago next month, another well-known cartel figure, Rafael Caro Quintero, walked out of jail in the middle of the night. He had been suddenly freed on a technicality after serving 28 years of a 40-year sentence for the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena. Mexico’s Supreme Court subsequently voided the lower court ruling that set Caro Quintero free, but it was too late. He immediately disappeared.

The torture and killing of Camarena in 1985 helped awaken U.S. officials to the danger of the Mexican cartels. The U.S. has offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his recapture.

But Caro Quintero’s gang was also implicated in the killing of several other Americans in Guadalajara, including a Minneapolis man named John Walker, who they mistook for a DEA agent.

In the end, Guzman almost certainly had too much money, too much power and too many strings he could pull.

Guzman probably was able to continue running the Sinaloa cartel from Altiplano, according to one expert quoted here. The non-experts could only shake their heads and marvel.

Said a 41-year-old Mexican merchant: “Shows you who really runs this country.”

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by charles thompson on 07/13/2015 - 10:02 am.

    truth stranger than fiction

    If this interests you try reading The Cartel, by Don Winslow.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/13/2015 - 10:21 am.

    Don’t ever underestimate the power of drug money and the warping of society and government across Central and North America.

    And Mexico has probably been more public about its struggles than the other Central American countries. It’s as bad in all of the other countries.

  3. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 07/13/2015 - 11:50 am.

    Call in the engineers…Mexico, Texas?

    This tunnel was not made in a day by overzealous armadillos…must be a bevy of engineering consultants working above ground to develop such an underground tunnel, structurally sound passage… and with code reviews or environmental assessment package not required?

    Somebody made a bundle on this one?

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