Pubdate: Mon, 13 Jul 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company
Authors: Azam Ahmed and Randal C. Archibold


Shortly before 9 p.m. on Saturday, Joaquin Guzman Loera, the Mexican 
drug kingpin whose capture last year had been trumpeted by his 
country's government as a crucial victory in its bloody campaign 
against the narcotics trade, stepped into the shower in his cell in 
the most secure wing of the most secure prison in Mexico.

He never came out.

When guards later entered the cell, they discovered a 2-by-2-foot 
hole, through which Mr. Guzman, known as El Chapo, or Shorty, had disappeared.

The prison break humiliated the government of President Enrique Pena 
Nieto, which had proclaimed the arrest of Mr. Guzman and leaders of 
other drug cartels as crucial achievements in restoring order and 
sovereignty to a country long beleaguered by the horrific violence 
associated with organized crime.

The opening in the shower led to a mile-long tunnel leading to a 
construction site in the nearby neighborhood of Santa Juanita in 
Almoloya de Juarez, west of Mexico City. The tunnel was more than two 
feet wide and more than five feet high, tall enough for him to walk 
standing upright, and was burrowed more than 30 feet underground. It 
had been equipped with lighting, ventilation and a motorcycle on 
rails that was probably used to transport digging material and cart 
the dirt out.

A few days after Mr. Guzman's arrest in February of last year, Mr. 
Pena Nieto told the Univision television network that he would be 
asking his interior minister every day if Mr. Guzman, who had broken 
out of a Mexican prison once before, in 2001, was being well guarded. 
"It's the government's responsibility to ensure that the escape that 
occurred a few years ago is never, ever repeated," Mr. Pena Nieto said.

A video camera watched over the notorious prisoner's cell, but 
apparently did not record how Mr. Guzman was able to tunnel out undetected.

In the hours after the breakout, the government began a sweeping 
manhunt, calling states of emergency in the surrounding areas and 
shutting down the airport in the nearby city of Toluca. The police 
and military personnel, many wearing body armor and carrying 
automatic weapons, stopped vehicles near the prison, Altiplano, which 
is about 55 miles west of Mexico City, and tightened security along 
the borders of Mexico State, where the prison is. The authorities 
also held 30 prison employees for questioning.

Officials said the tunnel ended about a mile from Mr. Guzman's cell, 
at a construction site southwest of the prison.

Though this was perhaps Mexico's most spectacular prison escape since 
the previous one by Mr. Guzman, the country has seen many breakouts, 
which have often occurred with the collusion of the authorities.

Mr. Pena Nieto, on a state visit to France, issued a statement on 
Sunday afternoon saying that the escape "represents without a doubt 
an affront to the Mexican state." Though he said he would remain in 
France to finish the visit, he dispatched his interior minister to 
personally oversee the operation to recapture Mr. Guzman.

Experts on the drug underworld were left dumbfounded and predicted 
the escape could bolster American demands to extradite top crime 
figures, particularly when United States law enforcement personnel 
have played major roles in many cases, and not without personal risk.

"It's shocking, embarrassing, a huge blow, almost everything under 
the sun," said Eric L. Olson, a scholar at the Mexico Institute of 
the Wilson Center who follows crime trends in Latin America. "It is 
almost Mexico's worst nightmare, and I suspect many in U.S. law 
enforcement are apoplectic right now."

"Mexico is going to be under increasing pressure from the U.S. in 
terms of extraditing these top people," he said.

Mexico has long struggled to reshape its police forces and root out 
corruption, but Mr. Olson said the prison system often takes a back 
seat as "the last thing in the chain of law enforcement."

Mr. Pena Nieto told Univision last year that if Mr. Guzman were to 
escape again, "it would be more than unfortunate, it would be unforgivable."

That was the sentiment among analysts and ordinary people alike in 
Mexico on Sunday, as they struggled to grasp how a kingpin already 
known for burrowing tunnels was able to do so under what was supposed 
to be an impregnable prison. For many, it displayed the challenge of 
applying justice against overwhelming narcotics wealth.

"Chapo's escape is spectacular as a blatant example of the corruption 
and complicity inside the prison system," said Eduardo Guerrero, a 
security analyst in Mexico. "The people who worked on the 
construction of the tunnel took their time to do it, calmly, with no 
worries, apparently. They equipped it perfectly, with everything 
necessary for a secure escape."

In addition to pioneering the use of tunnels to smuggle drugs across, 
or rather under, the United States border, Mr. Guzman built a warren 
of them in Culiacan, the capital of the state of Sinaloa, where his 
cartel was based and where he was believed to have been hiding for years.

Days before his capture last year, Mexican marines and American law 
enforcement officers raided the home of his ex-wife in Culiacan, only 
to find that he had fled though a secret door beneath a bathtub that 
led to a network of tunnels and sewer canals connecting to six other houses.

Mr. Guzman was finally caught in an apartment he used in the Pacific 
seaside city of Mazatlan.

Before his arrest, Mr. Guzman presided over a vast network that 
smuggled cocaine and marijuana into the United States and stretched 
as far as Europe and Africa. His wealth was estimated by Forbes 
magazine at more than $1 billion.

Mr. Guzman, who is believed to be in his late 50s, began his criminal 
career by selling marijuana with his father in the mountains of 
Sinaloa, never studying past third grade. In the years after his 
escape from prison in 2001, he became a mythical figure, surrounded 
by urban legends of sightings. Security agents closed in on him a 
couple of times, only to find that he had slipped away just hours 
before, often through tunnels built into the homes he frequented.

He faces indictments in at least seven American federal courts on 
charges that include narcotics trafficking and murder. In October, a 
new indictment in Federal District Court in Brooklyn linked him and 
his associates to hundreds of acts of murder, assault, kidnapping and torture.

In January, however, Mexico's attorney general, Jesus Murillo Karam, 
told The Associated Press that Mr. Guzman would never serve time in 
the United States. "I could accept extradition, but at the time that 
I choose. El Chapo must stay here to complete his sentence, and then 
I will extradite him," Mr. Murillo Karam said then. "So about 300 or 
400 years later - it will be a while."

The United States never filed a formal extradition request, though 
American officials did discuss it with their Mexican counterparts, 
who made it clear that they would not readily give him up, American 
law enforcement officials said not long after Mr. Guzman's arrest.

In a statement on Sunday, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said, "We 
share the government of Mexico's concern regarding the escape of 
Joaquin Guzman Loera 'Chapo' from a Mexican prison."

"The U.S. government stands ready to work with our Mexican partners 
to provide any assistance that may help support his swift recapture," 
the statement added.

The rule of law has long been a challenge for Mexico, and Mr. 
Guzman's case was but the most recent example. While Mr. Pena Nieto 
has tried to move away from the law and order concerns of his 
predecessor, Felipe Calderon, pressing significant economic reforms 
engineered to position Mexico as a success story, violence connected 
to the drug trade, and the impunity that accompanies it, has dogged 
his administration.

There was perhaps no more striking example than the deaths of 43 
university students in the restive southern state of Guerrero. A 
mayor, his wife and more than 45 police officers have been arrested 
in connection with the killings, accused of working on behalf - or 
being members of - the gangs that control the region.

Elisabeth Malkin and Paulina Villegas contributed reporting.
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