Arrests Made in Guzman Escape Caper

El Chapo's cell block

Photo Yuri Cortez/AFP/IBTimes

Arrests Made in Guzman Escape Caper
| published July 18, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

Mexican authorities have arrested at least seven people who investigators believe facilitated or assisted Sinaloa Cartel boss and drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in his dramatic escape from a maximum security prison early in July. Media reports from Mexico City say that more arrests may come soon.

Guzman escaped from his maximum security cell at about 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 11 after last being seen entering the shower and bathroom area near his cell. Guzman apparently slid down into a small hole in the tile and concrete floor, climbed down a tall ladder, and made his way through a series of tunnels stretching more than a mile. At the other end of the tunnel, he made his way up another ladder into a small concrete block building under construction. Guzman has not been seen since his disappearance from the shower area Saturday night.

Days after his escape, federal investigators detained more than 40 prison employees and supervisors. Four have been fired, and another dozen may yet be terminated, according to Mexican officials. Most experts on Guzman’s criminal activities and those of his gang suggest that he had lots of help, some of it outside the prison walls, and some from within. That he used tunneling as his method of escape came as no surprise to analysts who point to his frequent use of tunnels as a means of evading arrest, and the extensive use of elaborate tunnels connecting Mexico to the United States. Many of those tunnels have been more than a mile in length.

The arrests come after an exhaustive, week-long search for Guzman. In the hours after El Chapo’s escape, police and military officials sealed off a wide area around the prison, grounding all air traffic, setting up roadblocks and checkpoints on roads and highways, and even closing (or limiting) bus service and taxi services. Trucks were stopped and searched, and many passenger vehicles were inspected closely and at gunpoint. Still, there has no sign of Guzman since he was seen on video surveillance at 8:53 p.m. entering the shower.

Mexican investigators believe that Guzman’s associates on the outside were able to bribe officials to obtain construction records and blueprints of the prison, as well as operating manuals, schedules and other proprietary documents. There is also a widespread belief in Mexico—as well as among officials with the DEA and the FBI in the United States—that Guzman had extensive help from prison insiders But other than the firing of those four employees earlier in the week, the government of Mexico has taken no formal steps to charge prison officials with any crimes. Journalists in Mexico have asked why no high-ranking officials have been dismissed over the fiasco, which delivers a black eye to the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto. Pena Nieto himself addressed this looming question on Friday, saying that the incident has rightfully caused “indignation and frustration” among all Mexicans, but that revenge and retribution would not be the appropriate answer.

“We are not going to solve this issue,” Pena Nieto said in a televised speech upon his return from a summit in France, “by getting angry, and by filling ourselves with rage. The only way to answer this insult without a doubt is by recapturing this criminal.”

U.S. officials had worried mightily for more than a year that Guzman and his associates were planning some form of escape. Earlier in the week the Associated Press obtained documents which showed that both the FBI and the DEA had reason to believe that El Chapo had an escape plan underway, and there had been sketchy and intermittent intelligence reports that a tunneling operation might already be afoot. The U.S. had also communicated its desire to have Guzman extradited to the United States as soon as possible, though Mexican officials—including a former and current Attorney General—had both said that Guzman would be released into American custody only after the drug kingpin had served all his prison time on Mexican soil.

The U.S. had formally filed an extradition request on June 25, only weeks before El Chapo made his escape from the Altiplano Federal Prison near Toluca.

Reporters were unable to confirm whether those arrested for their participation in Guzman’s escape were civilians, or members of the police or prison system.

Though Guzman was serving time in Mexico for his involvement in drug trafficking and numerous murders and assaults (including the killing of law enforcement officers), he is also wanted in the United States for a long list of crimes. Guzman is the boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, which rakes in billions from the sale of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines in the U.S., Canada, and dozens of other countries. Guzman’s criminal empire stretches into half of Europe, parts of Central America, and into Australia and New Zealand.

Though U.S. officials are careful to limit what they are telling reporters, the FBI, DEA and other agencies (presumably also the CIA) are quietly extending heavy resources to assist Mexican law enforcement in the recapture of Guzman.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Mexican Officials: We Were Warned of Guzman Escape; Thursday Review; July 17, 2015.

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