Latin America

Political storm brewing in Mexico after “El Chapo’s” prison escape

World’s most notorious drug trafficker flees his jail cell through an elaborate tunnel

Entrance to the tunnel from where Guzmán escaped on Saturday (Spanish narration).Photo: AGENCIA_DESCONOCIDA
Jan Martínez Ahrens

The daring escape of the world’s most notorious drug trafficker, Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán Loera, from a maximum security prison this past weekend in Mexico has put the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto in a delicate position.

Mexican society is demanding answers as to how such a high-profile prisoner, who is also wanted in the United States, was able to flee his jail cell on Saturday through a 1,500-meter tunnel that was designed and constructed underneath a bathroom shower.

The prison break has embarrassed the Peña Nieto administration, which captured Guzmán last year

The prison break has deeply embarrassed the Peña Nieto administration, which in February 2014 was triumphant when authorities captured Guzmán, after he spent 13 years on the run.

Peña Nieto, who is on an official visit to France, has not obeyed calls by the opposition to return to Mexico immediately to deal with the crisis. But the president said in Paris that he had ordered a high-level investigation to determine whether government officials were involved in the escape.

Security forces began a massive nationwide manhunt for Guzmán, shutting down airports and blocking roads near the Altiplano prison in Almoloya de Juárez, outside Mexico City, where the reputed head of the Sinaloa cartel was being held in custody.

El Chapo, or “shorty,” as he is known, was considered the richest trafficker in the world. Each year, he made the annual Forbes list of the world's wealthiest billionaires.

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His power is legendary and his influence is often compared with that of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug kingpin who was killed in the 1990s. 

The Sinaloa cartel is the biggest single exporter of narcotics to the United States, the largest market for illegal drugs.

This was his second escape from a Mexican prison. In 2001, Guzmán was able to break free from another penitentiary in Jalisco state by hiding in a laundry cart.

When he was captured last year after the navy raided an apartment complex in Matzalán where he was staying, Peña Nieto said that it was his government’s responsibility to keep close watch over the world’s most-wanted drug kingpin to ensure he never again escapes.

Now the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) government is facing its worst crisis since it came to power in 2012.

“El Chapo’s escape has not only broken the government’s hardline strategy [against drug trafficking], but it also reveals the breaches that exist in national security,” said security expert Alejandro Hope, a former intelligence official.

“This isn’t a partisan problem; Mexico’s institutions are rotten. Something like this can only occur with the cooperation of top officials,” Hope said.

An elaborate tunnel, complete with lighting and ventilation, had been designed for the escape

An elaborate tunnel, complete with lighting and ventilation, had been designed especially for Guzmán’s escape.

“If the president doesn’t fire top officials, he is going to pay a huge political cost,” said analyst Rubén Aguilar.

The Peña Nieto government, which has made the fight against drug trafficking one of its top priorities, is already under fire after a series of political scandals, including the investigation of the murders of 43 teaching students in Iguala, Guerrero state, last September.

The president’s chief of staff, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, had assured reporters on several occasions that Guzmán was under “close watch and heavily guarded.”

Opposition leader and former presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist, called on Peña Nieto on Sunday to return immediately to Mexico after the president arrived in Paris for an official visit.

“Come back now, Mr President, so you can help protect Mexico’s image and prevent the country from becoming a laughing stock,” said López Obrador.

The president’s chief of staff had assured that Guzmán was under “close watch and heavily guarded”

The conservative National Action Party (PAN) called Guzmán’s escape “an embarrassment.”

Now Chong’s future with the government is uncertain.

The chief of staff, who has been in charge of national security, was able to dodge criticism the government received in the way it handled the Iguala case and an investigation into the military massacre of a group of reported drug traffickers in Ayotzinapa last year.

Yet, the ongoing scandals brought down Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam, who handed in his resignation earlier this year

“It is difficult to believe that intelligence and prison officials were not aware of the escape when obviously the plan needed the support of government resources, time, personnel and engineers,” said Deputy Miguel Alonso Raya of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). “There has to be top officials involved.”

English version by Martin Delfín.

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