El Chapo rides again

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune on Friday, July 17:

Joaquim Guzman Loera — the murderous drug lord known as El Chapo — was housed in a 6-foot by 10-foot cell in the high-security wing of Mexico’s most-closely guarded prison. To get in, he passed through 17 sets of electronic gates.

To get out, he removed a panel under his shower, descended 30 feet by ladder and rode a motorcycle-on-rails through a milelong tunnel to freedom.

The passage was equipped with lights, a ventilation system and oxygen tanks. The modified motorbike, used to cart tons of dirt, was found under the half-built farmhouse where Guzman exited the tunnel. He’s gone.

El Chapo — it means “Shorty” — had escaped once before, supposedly by hiding in a laundry cart at the Guadalajara prison where he’d been held from 1993 to 2001. He was recaptured last year in a joint U.S.-Mexico sting. This time, Mexico’s prison system managed to hold him only 17 months.

Obviously, he had lots of help. On the outside, his lieutenants in the brutal Sinaloa Cartel had the resources and know-how for the project, with lots of practice building tunnels to transport drugs throughout Mexico and under the U.S. border.

On the inside? Mexican authorities are questioning dozens of prison employees. The prison chief and the head of the federal intelligence agency have both been fired. Building the tunnel had to take a lot of time and make a lot of noise, with tons of dirt and rock trucked out. Surely it didn’t go unnoticed by prison workers and neighbors.

The roadblocks and door-to-door searches in Guzman’s home state of Sinaloa don’t seem promising. After his last escape, he eluded capture through a network of tunnels connecting several houses in his hometown, or hid in the rugged mountains where cannabis is farmed.

In Mexico, El Chapo is something of a folk hero, a lovable outlaw who makes fools of the corrupt and bumbling government. In the U.S., he’s the ruthless commander of a narcotrafficking enterprise centered in Chicago. He has bragged about ordering more than 2,000 deaths.

The U.S. attorney’s office here has indicted Guzman and several underlings and rivals in perhaps the biggest drug case in Chicago history. Six other U.S. jurisdictions have pending indictments against Guzman.

His arrest in 2014 was a big boost for the touch-and-go drug-busting partnership between the two countries. Agents had been close to catching him several times, only to have him slip away, probably because he’d been warned by insiders.

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, elected in 2012, promised to continue the war on drugs and organized crime supported by his predecessor, Felipe Calderon. The 2012 election restored the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to power after being sidelined for 12 years. Pena Nieto’s administration was supposed to represent a break from the violence and graft that had characterized the PRI for decades.

So it was a big deal to put Guzman back behind bars, and Pena Nieto promised to keep him there. Another jailbreak, he said, “would be unforgivable.”

Now that it has happened, Mexican officials seem determined to pursue Guzman — or pretend to — without help. They haven’t responded to U.S. offers to supply manpower, intelligence or drones to help in the search. When or if he’s recaptured, Mexico no doubt expects the U.S. to argue forcefully for his extradition.

After his arrest last year, Mexico resisted that suggestion, and the U.S. did not insist.

“El Chapo must stay here to complete his sentence, and then I will extradite him,” Mexico’s Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told The Associated Press in January, adding that it would take “about 300 to 400 years.” That’s some tough talk.

El Chapo made his getaway six months later — on an underground motorcycle. Unforgivable indeed.


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