U.S. Officials Aware of Guzman Escape Plans

El Chapo Escape pipeline

Photo courtesy of Reuters

U.S. Officials Aware of Guzman Escape Plans
| published July 13, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff writers

That Joaquin Guzman, also known as El Chapo, used a tunnel to make his escape from Mexico’s most maximum security prison should come as no particular shock. Tunnels are El Chapo’s forte, and his vast army of operatives have been using extremely sophisticated tunneling projects for decades—especially along the long border which separates the United States from Mexico.

Those often elaborate and well-constructed tunnels have been used for smuggling narcotics into the U.S., for trafficking human beings back and forth, for ferrying cash back into Mexico, and for giving criminals and drug dealers unfettered passage into Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

Also not a surprise: the use by El Chapo’s engineering minions of “new home construction” or small-scale building projects to mask at least one entrance—if not both entrances—to the portal connecting one country to the other.

But what may come as a surprise to many Americans—and Mexicans as well—is that Guzman’s various secret plans to break out of the maximum security prison near Toluca, about one hour west of Mexico City, were common knowledge among agents of the DEA and FBI in Washington, where concerns that El Chapo was crafting some form of escape was widely known to be already under way.

According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, internal DEA memos and emails show numerous conversations about plans by Guzman associates to develop a large-scale tunneling operation to free him from the prison which Mexican officials said was escape-proof. Both the FBI and the DEA contacted Mexican law enforcement and Mexican prison officials, only to have their concerns rebuffed.

Officials in the United States has requested as early as late February 2014, only weeks after Guzman’s capture in the Pacific coast seaside town of Mazatlan, that Mexican authorities strongly consider remanding El Chapo into the custody of the United States, where he had already been indicted on more than a dozen charges of narcotics distribution, conspiracy, murder and attempted murder. But Mexico’s attorney general and top prosecutors in Mexico City had maintained that as a matter of both principal and pride, Guzman should be prosecuted in Mexico—the land where his criminal empire was based, and the country where his violence has wrought the most damage and brutality.

According to those DEA and FBI documents, Guzman and some of his associates began planning for his escape almost immediately, and U.S. intelligence agencies caught wind of some of Guzman’s machinations as early as March and April of 2014: attempts to bribe prison officials, electronic correspondence between top Guzman lieutenants regarding early escape proposals and plans, and even attempts by known Guzman associates to gain permits for pipeline construction and building construction in areas only a few thousand feet from the prison.

The DEA apparently alerted Mexican authorities, who may or may not have taken appropriate action to watch the activities of Guzman’s associates.

Guzman escaped from a federal prison shortly after 9 p.m. on Saturday night. Though his cell block area was heavily guarded and wired for both video and audio, he eluded surveillance cameras long enough to slip through a 20 inch hole in the bathroom tile, and into a small concrete tunnel which had been dug to within a few inches of the shower walls. From there, Guzman (and those who may have abetted in his escape) followed a series of tunnels for over one mile, until he was able to emerge through a square 25 inch portal in the floor of a concrete block home under construction. Part of Guzman’s escape route was through a large set of industrial pipelines being installed in the area, several of which run to within only a few feet of the outer fence of the prison. Mexican authorities have not offered any explanation of how such a large and complex pipeline project was allowed to be undertaken so close to the perimeter of the prison’s walls.

Federal police have detained some 20 employees of the prison, and say they intend to interview all of them to find out who—if any—might be accomplices in the elaborate escape. Though prison officials may be punished, or even jailed, if it is proven they participated in or facilitated Guzman’s escape, it will be little consolation for millions of Mexicans—and those in the United States—who were confident that El Chapo would spend the rest of his life in prison.

Guzman has been known for his escape artistry in the past. In 2001, while serving a life sentence at a maximum security prison in Jalisco, Guzman escaped by way of a laundry cart. Later, evidence was shown that he had used large sums of cash for bribes—coupled with threats of extreme violence—to coerce the cooperation of prison guards and officers in the 2001 escape. Guzman remained at large until he was recaptured in 2014.

Guzman has been the boss of the so-called Sinaloa Cartel since the late 1980s. DEA and FBI officials say he has been responsible for millions of pounds of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine entering the United States. After the arrest of Columbian kingpins Pablo Escobar and Carlos Lehder, Guzman became arguably the most powerful drug overlord in the world. After his escape in 2001, Guzman began consolidating control over Mexican drug trafficking and criminal activities through a brutal, bloody war with rival cartels and gangs. Those battles left some 100,000 people dead in scores of cities over a ten year period, and brought drug violence and gang rivalries to the very edge of the border which separates Mexico from the United States.

During the period when El Chapo and his rivals fought for control of Mexico, many border towns became killing zones, with gun battles raging all night, and local police and civilians left to clean up the carnage the next morning. Among Guzman’s favorite forms of vengeance: hacking rival gang members to death with meat cleavers, beheadings of cops and locals who got in the way, and using chain saws to amputate arms and legs of those who challenged his criminal operations. By some estimates, more than one thousand police officers were killed in towns and cities in Mexico as a result of the drug wars and the Sinaloa Cartel.

At the time of his arrest in 2014, Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel empire was worth in excess of $2 billion, and his reach into criminal gang activity included scores of U.S and Canadian cities, as well as much of Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the Caribbean.

As of this writing, Mexican authorities have no clue as to Guzman’s location and have received no solid leads from witnesses. By the time prison officials had been alerted to his escape through the shower and bathroom area, they theorize he had already travelled at least half the distance of the one mile set of tunnels. By early Sunday, federal officials had closed local bus stations and train depots, halted all air traffic except military or police helicopters at the nearby airports and airfields, and sealed off all roads leading into the area around the prison. Checkpoints were set up in hundreds of locations in an area of about 30 miles around the prison, and extra police were posted at the gates of all international flights at nearby Mexico City International Airport.

Photos taken in the hours after Guzman’s escape show military personnel and police standing near some of the exposed pipeline used in a major construction project in the area around Toluca. Though the Mexican government has not clarified why the project was allowed to proceed so close to the prison walls, satellite imagery found on Google shows the pipeline project already under construction as early as last year, in mid-2014. Scores of the large blue metal and concrete pipes can be clearly seen lining roads to the east of the prison, with more stored in neat rows only a half mile away.

Authorities also believe that Guzman may have used a motorcycle once inside the escape tunnel, which would have allowed him to cover the distance very quickly and ahead of any prison officers who might be in pursuit.

The U.S. government has offered any available assistance to Mexico for the hunt for Guzman. But experts believe that with each passing hour it becomes less likely that authorities will be able to pick up his trail or track his movements.

Related Thursday Review articles:

El Chapo Escapes From Mexican Prison; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 12, 2015.

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