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'Chapo' Prison Break Shows Just How Weak Mexico's Government Really Is

Joaquin Guzman's cinematic escape from the Altiplano federal prison in Mexico painfully exposes the weaknesses of President Enrique Peña Nieto's government.
Imagen por Brett Gundlock/VICE News

Captured, escaped, re-captured, escaped again: The criminal career of Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzman took a cinematic turn on Saturday when he went to a shower in a maximum-security prison and never returned.

The Sinaloa cartel capo is thought to be the leader of a multi-billion dollar trafficking business and is notorious for ruthless violence against enemies and intra-cartel rivals, making him at one point one of the most wanted men in the world alongside Osama bin Laden.


Authorities said Guzman crawled through a hole 1.6 feet wide and down a tunnel to a level 30 feet below the ground. This second tunnel offered Guzman a custom-built escape to freedom. It was described as 5 feet, 6 inches high — the known height of the capo known as "Shorty."

The implausible had occurred.

Guzman escaped again, once more eluding and mocking Mexican and US anti-drug authorities. Now, July 11, 2015, will probably be remembered as the date that "El Chapo" exposed the monumental weaknesses of the Mexican government and embarrassed the cabinet of President Enrique Peña Nieto, experts and observers said in interviews.

And "El Chapo" has gotten better at it.

"The escape shows the reigning corruption in the whole apparatus of security and justice, and at all levels of government," Jorge A. Kawas, a Mexican security risk analyst, told VICE News.

Related: We Visited the End of the Tunnel Where 'El Chapo' Made His Brazen Jailbreak

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, shortly after his February 22, 2014, arrest in Mazatlan, Sinaloa. (Photo by Eduardo Verdugo/AP)

With the elaborate tunnel scheme out of the Altiplano prison, Guzman seemed to outmatch his previous escape from another maximum-security prison in Jalisco in 2001. It took eight years for Guzman to apparently stroll out of the Puente Grande prison on January 19, 2001, after years of payoffs to officials.

That escape happened just weeks after an opposition president took office, ending 71 years of one-party rule under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.


The new non-PRI government wasn't prepared quickly enough to confront Chapo's awesome talents for corrupting government officials, hopeful supporters of then-President Vicente Fox argued.

In contrast, Saturday's escape took place almost three years after Peña Nieto's election brought the PRI back to power. The PRI campaigned in 2012 behind the youthful face of Peña Nieto, and promised to be a "new PRI" — in reference to the old PRI that was known for repressing dissidents and striking deals with drug-traffickers.

Guzman's Saturday night tunnel escape also happened after promises from former Mexican attorney general Jesus Murillo Karam that there was "no way" Chapo would break free from government hands again, and therefore, the Americans would just have to wait to see him extradited to the United States to face trafficking charges.

"I could accept extradition but at the time that I choose," Murillo Karam said to the Associated Press in late January, shortly before he was canned for his mishandling of the case of the missing 43 students in Guerrero state.

"El Chapo must stay here to complete his sentence and then I will extradite him," he added brashly. "So about 300 or 400 years later — it will be a while."

Karam got demoted the following month to a low-ranking cabinet post related to development.

"This escape was foreseeable," Manuel Molano, deputy director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness think tank, told VICE News on Sunday. "We should learn from the Colombian experience and from the beginning establish mechanisms to extradite these high-level narcos to the US."


Related: El Chapo's Son May Have Hinted on Twitter That Escape Was Coming

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto addresses reporters Sunday in Paris, France. (Photo via Presidencia de México)

Peña Nieto, meanwhile, kept his focus on attracting foreign money to Mexico, despite slumping figures of foreign direct investment in the country and a string of downgraded projections for overall economic growth.

As Joaquin Guzman entered the shower and burrowed to freedom, Peña Nieto and senior members of his cabinet — including the heads of the army and the navy — were taking the presidential plane to Paris, France. Their plan: a five-day scheduled state visit meant to sign a bunch of business accords and drum up French enthusiasm for Mexico's growth markets.

Upon landing, the president and his team were hit with the "Chapo" escape news. Interior minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong immediately flew back, but he did so alone.

By Sunday evening, Peña Nieto told his traveling press corps that he would not cut short his French tour, saying that Mexico's economic future was his top priority.

"This is an affront to the Mexican state, but I also trust in the institutions of the Mexican state […] to recapture this criminal," Peña Nieto said in Paris.

The president had previously told US broadcaster Univision that it would be "unforgivable" if Chapo ever managed to escape again from Mexican custody. Yet in Paris, using his usual dry diplomatic language, Peña Nieto said only that he was "instructing" his subordinates to "coordinate" their investigation and to keep Mexican society "informed" of their progress.


The press in Mexico criticized Peña Nieto's decision to stay.

"In the end, [Peña Nieto] is the highest figure responsible for security in the country, and, according to the official discourse, the inmate who escaped on Saturday night represents the most serious threat to that security," noted the Monday editorial of the daily La Jornada.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the leftist political leader and declared presidential candidate, sharply rebuked Peña Nieto's decision to stay in France this week, calling on him to "return immediately" so he wouldn't "suffer this embarrassment abroad."

The United States response to Chapo's escape has been so far muted. Only the new attorney general, Loretta E. Lynch, released a brief statement on Sunday, saying exactly what you might expect it to say — hollow-sounding language on worry and cooperation.

"We share the government of Mexico's concern regarding the escape of Joaquin Guzman Loera from a Mexican prison," Lynch's statement said. "The US government stands ready to work with our Mexican partners to provide any assistance that may help support his swift recapture."

Alejandro Hope, a Mexican security analyst, told VICE News the Chapo escape exposes what is likely extraordinary levels of corruption in Mexico's government.

"Someone had to have had the prison architectural plans, someone must have had access to the surveillance cameras," Hope said. "This points to a complicity higher than the employees of the prison."


Mexican officials said there are now 31 prison employees under investigation for Chapo's escape, including the Altiplano director, Valentin Cardenas Lerma. Altiplano had been considered the most secure prison in all of Mexico, and it is located right in the heart of Peña Nieto's political home-turf, the State of Mexico.

Interior minister Osorio Chong was scheduled to deliver a new press conference at 7pm local time today, or 46 hours — almost two days — since Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman crawled out of a cinder-block shed a mile from Altiplano and vanished.

Related: The Femicide Crisis in the State of Mexico (Full Length)

David Agren, Melissa del Pozo, Jan-Albert Hootsen, and Gabriela Gorbea contributed to this report. 

Follow Daniel Hernandez on Twitter: @longdrivesouth