How Mexico’s Most-Wanted Drug Lord Escaped From Prison (Again)


Joaquín Guzmán Loera, a drug kingpin known as El Chapo, escaped from Mexico’s most secure prison on Saturday night, humiliating officials who had promised that Mr. Guzmán’s 2001 escape would never be repeated.
First, Mr. Guzmán is believed to have climbed down through a two-by-two foot hole underneath a shower in the prison’s most secure wing.Yuri Cortez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The shower opening led to an elaborate tunnel 30 feet underground and almost a mile long. The tunnel was equipped with lighting, ventilation and a motorcycle on rails that was probably used to transport digging material and cart the dirt out. It led to a construction site with a bare-bones compound in the nearby neighborhood of Santa Juanita.Yuri Cortez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Through a hole in the ground, a ladder led to the middle of the construction site.Attorney General of Mexico

Construction on the compound was started some time after February last year, satellite images show. Mexican authorities began a sweeping manhunt, shutting down an airport and holding 30 prison employees, including the head of the prison, for questioning.

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‘El Chapo’ Prison Break Is a Blow to Mexico’s Leader

However bruised and battered he has been,President Enrique Peña Nieto has always clung to the polished image he sold to the Mexican electorate: the perfectly coifed wunderkind who would break with the corrupt, incompetent past and get things done.Embedded image permalinkEven when Mexicans complained that his signature reforms in energy, telecommunications and education were not bearing fruit, he stuck to his script, telling them to be patient, that such a grand reshaping ofMexico would take time.

But for many Mexicans, the stunning escape of the country’s most notorious drug kingpin, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, shattered the president’s own closely defended narrative, leading many here to ask how much of Mr. Peña Nieto’s waning credibility might have slipped away through the tunnel that carried the trafficker to freedom.“Accusations of ineptness, that really gets them, it undermines their narrative,” Alejandro Hope, a security expert and former intelligence officer, said of the Peña Nieto administration. “A subtext of this is that crime and violence were the result of the ineptness of” previous governments.

“Now that the smart guys were in charge, those things would not happen,” he added. “Whoops.”

Mr. Guzmán’s arrest in 2014 by the Mexican authorities, aided by intelligence provided by the United States, was a coup for Mr. Peña Nieto, who sought to use it as a prime example of his government’s effectiveness.

Because Mr. Guzmán had escaped from prison before, and then evaded capture as Mexico’s most wanted man for years, Mr. Peña Nieto assured the public that the same mishap would not happen under his watch. A second escape would be “unforgivable,” he said.

Mr. Peña Nieto’s own words are coming back to haunt him. Mr. Guzmán not only broke out of what was supposed to be Mexico’s most secure prison over the weekend, but it happened in the president’s home state, a political stronghold where Mr. Peña Nieto served as governor before becoming president in 2012.

Now the breakout has become a symbol of the president’s inability to overcome the deeply rooted ills of corruption, impunity and gaping holes in the rule of law.

“The lack of rule of law, the stain of corruption and the disaster of the criminal system in Mexico is probably Mexico’s No. 1 problem,” said Enrique Krauze, a historian. “The escape only underlines the cruel and bitter reality. We need to reform the system starting from its roots.”

Of Mr. Guzmán’s escape he added: “Our worst nightmare has happened. This has a terrible weight, real and symbolic.”

On Saturday night, Mr. Guzmán entered the shower area of his cell and dropped through a small opening in the floor, about 20 inches on each side. He climbed down a ladder in a vertical shaft, then fled through an elaborate tunnel about a mile long that ended in a small house on a construction site.

At a news conference on Monday night, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, the minister of the interior, said that every element of the government was engaged in the manhunt. Neighboring countries, too, stepped up scrutiny of their borders, and the authorities said that a reward of up to $3.8 million had been offered for information leading to Mr. Guzmán’s capture.

He added that the head of the Altiplano prison, from which Mr. Guzmán made his escape, had been dismissed along with several other penal system employees.

Mr. Chong asked all Mexicans to call an anonymous hotline with any information they might have, while recognizing that informing on a drug lord could prompt fear even among those inclined to help. “Just like no resources were spared to detain this fugitive in the past, we will not spare any resource to detain him again,” he said. “There will be no rest for this felon.”

Some Mexicans reacted to the escape with humor, joking that the drug traffickers were better at building infrastructure than the government. That included a new subway line in Mexico City, which has been plagued by problems, prompting quips that the project should be handed over to Mr. Guzmán and his minions. Some started referring to Mr. Guzmán not as El Chapo (or Shorty) but El Topo, the mole.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Alma Camarena Díaz, 54, of Mexico City. “The level of corruption in this country, it is just everywhere.”

When Mr. Peña Nieto took office in December 2012, he tried to shift the focus of the country and its image away from that of a nation rived by drug violence and corruption. But his own image has been bruised by corruption allegations in his immediate circle.

Late last year, local journalists published details of a luxurious house that the first lady, Angélica Rivera, was buying on credit from a contractor that had done a lot of government business. Then, the finance minister, Luis Videgaray, was also shown to have bought a house from the company. In each case, officials have asserted that there were no conflicts of interest.

A federal police officer stood guard on Monday at a half-built house near the Altiplano maximum security prison outside Mexico City from which Joaquín Guzmán Loera escaped Saturday. CreditMarco Ugarte/Associated Press


Perhaps the president’s lowest moment was the disappearance last year of 43 students in the state of Guerrero. Investigators revealed that a mayor, who had been working with a criminal organization in the area, had handed the students to the gang, which then killed them and burned the remains. Scores of police officers were also arrested in the episode.

Rancor rose across the nation when Mr. Peña Nieto traveled to Asia during the crisis for economic and political summit meetings. (He ultimately shortened the trip, to six days from 10, amid a wave of criticism.)

Mr. Peña Nieto’s standing in the polls soon sunk to the lowest levels in decades for a Mexican president, and voters, fed up with traditional parties, elected independent candidates for the first time in June elections, including the governor of a major economic hub, Nuevo León State.

Now Mr. Peña Nieto has generated another torrent of criticism by going forward with a state visit to France to sign economic and other accords and participate in Bastille Day events as questions swirl at home about the escape.

On the national stage, Mr. Peña Nieto has passed measures to fix entrenched problems that experts agreed were a drag on economic growth in Mexico, perhaps most notably in the energy sector. For the first time in nearly eight decades, the nation will allow private companies — from Mexico and abroad — to develop new oil fields with its state-owned oil companies, contracts that will begin to be auctioned this week.

Mr. Peña Nieto has also taken on telecommunications monopolies in the country and sought to neuter the powerful teachers’ unions that controlled classrooms and, in the view of many, left Mexico behind in education.

But as he approaches the halfway mark of his six-year term, Mexicans complain they have yet to feel the dramatic change such measures promised. And now Mr. Guzmán’s escape has robbed the president of his biggest accomplishment on the security front.

“Chapo’s escape puts an end to the ‘Mexico Moment’ strategy” of the president, said Isabel Studer, the founding director of the Global Institute for Sustainability at the Egade Business School in Mexico, citing the phrase Mr. Peña Nieto used during his inaugural address: “This is Mexico’s moment.”

She added: “Peña Nieto’s reforms have so far failed to achieve what they were meant for, such as improving Mexico’s image abroad and boosting the Mexican economy. While the pending structural reforms were obviously needed, they are doomed to fail due to the evident weakness of the Mexican State — with rampant corruption and no law enforcement capabilities.”

From the start, Mr. Peña Nieto did not want Mexico’s chronic violence and organized crime problems to define his presidency. He has veered from strategy to strategy, promising to reduce violence early on. But ultimately he adopted much of the same approach as his predecessor,Felipe Calderón, with an emphasis on using the military to hunt kingpins.

As Mexican security forces broke apart older, more established criminal groups, new gangs began to form that proved very deadly.

In early May, members of the New Generation gang fired a rocket-propelled grenade into an army helicopter, killing eight soldiers in a round of violence that claimed the lives of more than a dozen security forces. The emergence of the gang, forged from the pieces of other networks whose prominence had waned, was a stunning reminder of the flexibility of the syndicates.

The prison that had held Mr. Guzmán is an imposing compound, with tall guard towers, concrete walls and metal fences topped by razor wire — a stark contrast with the peaceful green fields of corn and livestock around it.

Mr. Guzmán rose through the ranks of Mexico’s drug syndicates to lead the Sinaloa cartel, the country’s most powerful and, according to the American authorities, the biggest source of drugs flowing into the United States. He is an underworld figure of mythical proportions andhad once before escaped from prison, by bribing guards and, by some accounts, hiding in a laundry cart.

From the moment he was recaptured last year, officials on both sides of the border have said that they expected another escape attempt.

“They’re all in it together,” said José Manuel Gil, 61, a grocery shop owner in Mexico City. “They’re all accomplices.”

Source: NY Times


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