Mexican Officials: We Were Warned of Guzman Escape

El Chapo escape portal

Image courtesy of Reuters

Mexican Officials: We Were Warned of
Guzman Escape
| published July 17, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff writers

After more than four days of silence on the issue, the Mexican government on Friday admitted that the agents of the U.S. DEA and FBI had warned Mexican officials of a possible escape by drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on several occasions during early 2015, and that the U.S. had filed its latest request for extradition as recently as 17 days before Guzman’s escape from prison.

Guzman slipped away from the maximum security prison at Toluca, near Mexico City, a week ago. El Chapo was last seen on the prison’s elaborate video surveillance system at about 8:53 p.m. on Saturday night as he entered the shower and bathroom area near his cell. Minutes later, he had vanished, having slipped into a 20 inch portal in the tile and concrete floor. Guzman then apparently climbed down a ladder to a tunnel deep below the prison, where he fled on foot and by motorcycle. Within the hour, authorities set up roadblocks, police and military checkpoints, grounded all air traffic, and even closed bus terminals. But Mexican police have had no sightings of Guzman since he vanished.

Both Mexico’s attorney general and interior minister have said that Guzman’s escape could not have been possible without extensive help—not just from crews working outside the prison (they estimate that the tunnel operation may have involved more than 40 full time workers), but also on the inside…from guards and supervisors who would have surely been aware of the elaborate and sophisticated tunneling taking place around and beneath the prison. Several employees have been fired, and prison officials say more may be terminated in the near future, pending investigations into the prison and how it was managed.

The Altiplano federal prison at Toluca, about a one hour drive west of Mexico City, is considered one of the most secure in all of Mexico. Containing about 750 video cameras, the modern facility is also wired for sound in many areas, and even has motion detection devices in the most secure parts of the prison—where Guzman has been housed for more than 16 months. The prison also employs some of the most extensive outside security and surveillance of any modern prison, and its perimeter was enhanced and upgraded by federal authorities in the days and weeks after Guzman arrived—in anticipation, among other things, of a large scale assault by heavily-armed Guzman associates. Though no such outside attack ever occurred, prison officials apparently overlooked El Chapo’s skill and fondness for tunneling and elaborate underground operations, such as those discovered during the months-long chase which led to his capture in early 2014.

Since the late 1980s, Guzman has been the boss of the so-called Sinaloa Cartel. After the demise of Columbian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, Guzman’s operation has expanded rapidly. Guzman was caught and jailed in 1993, but escaped with the help of corrupt prison guards and supervisors in 2001. During the aught years, he consolidated control of Mexican and some Central American drug operations, often fighting a brutal and bloody war with rival gangs and law enforcement. During that decade, more than 100,000 people died as a result of the gang violence, much of it along the border between the United States and Mexico. Guzman maintained criminal operations in neighboring Guatemala, Costa Rica and El Salvador, where gang violence and criminal activity continues to this day. Guzman’s principal operations involve the distribution of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and marijuana into the United States and Canada, but his criminal reach also extends into parts of Europe, South America, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand. Officials in several countries believe that at the height of his power before his last capture, Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel was worth more than $20 billion and the El Chapo himself was worth $1.5 billion.

The U.S. filed papers for Guzman’s extradition from Mexico in late June, just weeks ago.

Some U.S. officials say that there was word of a Guzman tunneling operation as far back as spring of 2014, shortly he was sent to Toluca. A few days ago the Associated Press obtained records of correspondence between the DEA and FBI regarding intelligence chatter, information indicating that known El Chapo associates might be engaged in an attempt to set him free. U.S. officials even had information, sketchy though it was at the time, that a tunneling operation was already under way. Records indicate that U.S. law enforcement officials communicated those concerns to their counterparts in Mexico City. But Mexican authorities ignored those warnings, convinced that El Chapo was secure inside Altiplano, and sensing that as a matter of national priority Guzman should be kept in Mexico. A former Mexican Attorney General, Jesus Murillo Karam, had also said that there was little chance that Guzman would be released into U.S. custody until the drug lord had served all of the time for which he had been sentenced by the Mexican courts.

In the United States, Guzman is wanted for distribution of cocaine and heroin, for human trafficking, and for conspiracy. Guzman may also be charged in the U.S. for the deaths of several border patrol agents, and for smuggling guns across the border.

Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel has been known for its often elaborate and sophisticated tunneling operations, especially those used to smuggle drugs and human beings into the United States. Some of the tunnels uncovered over the years in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas have stretched for over a mile, and the most sophisticated sometimes contain lighting and ventilation systems.

Mexican investigators say that Guzman’s lieutenants were able to bribe officials to gain access not only to the prison’s detailed blueprints and daily operating procedures, but may have also bought their way into access to construction permits and right-of-way access around Toluca. Legitimate heavy construction projects in the area helped to mask the fact that a large-scale digging project was underway near the prison. Furthermore, a massive pipeline project in the area took pipes—some nine feet in diameter—right alongside the prison’s exterior. Mexican investigators are still looking into how that project was allowed to proceed so close to the prison, with deep digging taking place sometimes within a few feet of the prison walls.

Investigators also want to know how such extensive digging took place right underneath the prison without detection, and why routine inspections of the shower and bathroom areas near Guzman’s cell did not reveal anything amiss. The tunnel, which stretches for more than one mile, may have taken more than a year to construct. The tunnel ends inside a concrete block house under construction, where a two foot square panel opens up through the unfinished sand floor. Those building the tunnel moved sand, dirt and rock out of the construction site each day, and covered the portal in the floor with a large panel which they covered each night with sand.

In the United States, according to the Associated Press, the U.S. government is employing the resources of multiple agencies to assist Mexico in Guzman’s recapture. DEA operations chief Jack Riley told reporters on Thursday that he was confident that Guzman would be recaptured, though he did not say what tools or resources the U.S. had thrown into the manhunt. Riley, while working in Chicago, was instrumental in the multi-year process of tracking Guzman and building a solid case for his arrest on charges of criminal conspiracy and narcotics trafficking.

Related Thursday Review articles:

El Chapo Had Help From Prison Insiders; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 14, 2015.

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