Despite an electronic localization bracelet, closed-circuit video surveillance, and a multiple-agency security perimeter, jailed drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman used a blind spot in cameras watching him — his shower stall — to reach a tunnel to escape from a maximum-security prison in Mexico, officials said.
The government on Monday pointed a finger at the country's National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) for the cartel capo's exploitation of weaknesses of cell 20 at the Altiplano federal prison west of Mexico City.
Human-rights conventions recommended by CNDH prevented Guzman from being fitted with a more secure GPS locater, and also prevented cameras from being fixed in his shower, said interior minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.
"He managed to escape through that blind spot," Osorio Chong said on Monday.
Three top prison officials, including the Altiplano director Valentin Cardenas Lerma, were fired. Authorities also said they would be reviewing protocols and rules on high-risk prisoners, but didn't elaborate.
"El Chapo" and other top drug inmates at Altiplano had filed a complaint to the human rights commission in February over conditions inside, but CNDH investigators said after interviewing inmates that no major rights abuses were found.
The new information demonstrated more deficiencies in Mexico's handling of Chapo's detention, observers said two days after the cinematic escape.
Criticism has rained down on the government for the failings, and also for the decision of President Enrique Peña Nieto to not cancel a state visit to France with an entourage of more than 400 government officials and guests.
Peña Nieto was flying across the Atlantic with most of his top cabinet ministers when "El Chapo" fled. Osorio Chong was the only minister to immediately return to Mexico. "A government looking down a hole," wrote Milenio columnist Carlos Puig.
Separately, US anti-drug agents said they had information Guzman was planning his escape since March 2014, a month after he entered the prison to face charges and sentencing that the government boasted would keep him behind bars in Mexico for "300 or 400 years."
Sixteen months ago, the US Drug Enforcement Administration made information of "potential operations to free Guzman" known to Mexican authorities, according to an unnamed DEA official who spoke to the Associated Press. DEA agents in Los Angeles and Houston reported hearing about the plans.
Osorio Chong denied the Mexican government had any knowledge of such plans, or any previous alleged escape attempts by the Sinaloa cartel leader.
If confirmed, the awareness of Chapo's flight risk could dampen the security cooperation between the US and Mexico, which is described as delicate. US-provided intelligence led Mexican marines to capture Guzman on February 22, 2014, in the Pacific resort of Mazatlan, Sinaloa.
Neighbors of the half-built house where Guzman made his final exit told the AP that outsiders rented the property about a year ago, and began building the cinder-block structure immediately. The unidentified individuals began hiring people in the area and paying them well.
A group of approximately 12 men built the house in only three months, neighbors said.
On Monday, the outskirts of the Altiplano prison were guarded by convoys of Mexican federal police, but no armed guards were seen in security turrets, and business as usual carried on in the modest homes and business that are scattered amid cornfields around the complex.
Mexico's federal water agency has an ongoing drainage project beside the prison, and construction materials, including tractors and enormous piping, lay along several of the dirt paths that lead to the prison's gate.
Before entering the tunnel, Guzman somehow removed his electronic tracker, Osorio Chong said in Monday's press conference.
"As he passed through the areas with light bulbs, he broke them, smashing them to increase the confusion during the operation to catch him," the minister said.
But there were other detailed questions that he simply did not answer: whether the military was not informed of the escape until at least two hours after it happened; whether there is an underground barrier below the prison to prevent digs; or whether Chapo's security protocols included switching him from cells periodically.
Forty-nine government employees are being questioned over Guzman's escape. Authorities have arrested Calixto Estrada Castillo, the owner of the half-built house where Guzman's tunnel ended, on charges of complicity with organized crime.
Only two of the 49 held have been released, while the rest filed a constitutional plea to be able to communicate with their relatives. Those being questioned have been isolated since Sunday.
Osorio Chong said he would not be stepping down himself, replying to a repeated question: "Moments of crisis are not for stepping down, they're for fighting."
Melissa del Pozo and Gabriela Gorbea contributed to this report.
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