Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman prison photos

Just over 16 months after he was captured, Mexico’s legendary drug trafficker Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped from a maximum security prison. The embarrassing event has the potential to torpedo the rest of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration and roil relations between the US and Mexico.

According to the National Security Commission (Comision Nacional de Seguridad - CNS), Guzman was last seen at 8:52 p.m. local time, July 11, in the shower area of the Altiplano prison. When he did not appear in his cell, authorities checked and “found it empty.”

In a press conference, CNS head Monte Alejandro Rubido said El Chapo escaped via tunnel specially constructed beneath the showers that measured 50 cm x 50 cm at the point of departure, and connected to a ladder that extended 10 meters below the surface.

From there, the tunnel widens, reaching 1.7 meters in height and about 70 to 80 centimeters in width, Monte Rubio said; it stretches 1.5 kilometers and includes air ducts, lighting and was built with high-quality construction materials, he added.

Authorities also found a motorcycle mounted on some sort of rail system, Monte Rubio said, which they presume was used to move materials and possibly Guzman himself as he made his way to freedom.

After the escape, Mexico’s government shut the closest airport and sent hundreds of police and military troops to comb the area around the prison, which is located in a state known for criminal activity. Authorities are also interrogating some 30 prison guards about the escape.

Guzman was captured in 1993 in Guatemala and imprisoned in Mexico, but he escaped in 2001. He was recaptured in February 2014, but not before he had transformed into the world’s most wanted drug trafficker.

SEE ALSO: El Chapo Guzman Profile

Guzman’s second capture was a huge win for the Peña Nieto administration, which has shown itself adept at corralling high-level drug trafficking suspects, even while it has had difficulty reigning in other criminal activities such as extortion and kidnapping.

Peña Nieto’s administration has captured nearly every big capo that his predecessor, Felipe Calderon, did not, including two top Zetas leaders, the head of the Betran Leyva Organization, the leader of the Juarez Cartel and the two leaders of the Knights Templar, among many others. These captures were, up until El Chapo's escape, a powerful testament that something was going right.  

InSight Crime Analysis

In the short term, Guzman’s escape is more of a political than a security question. The high-level captures were the result of what appeared to be better intelligence and coordination amongst security forces. But the most important message was one of political will: Peña Nieto had will and was not beholden to the traffickers.

El Chapo's stunning escape has the potential to reverse that sentiment completely. Unless the Mexican government recaptures Guzman quickly, his escape will overshadow all those other success stories and give the appearance that the will of the president has dissipated.

It comes at a terrible time for the president. His security strategy remains in tatters following the dramatic disappearance of 43 students last year. Local politicians and police presumably played important roles in the disappearance and coverup of the crime, which was committed by a local criminal group, the Guerreros Unidos. But the national government has shouldered the blame, especially following its slow and shoddy investigation.

The government is also facing down accusations that its security forces are involved in extrajudicial killings. In early July, a report by a leading Mexican human rights organization said the military was ordered to "take...out" suspected criminals in an operation in the municipality of Tlatlaya that ended in the death of some 22 people, at least 12 of whom the government's Human Rights Commission said were extrajudicially executed. Another report released by Mexico's National Autonomous University said that for every military death, 32 suspected criminals die.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles  

The escape could also paralyze the presidency on the security front for Peña Nieto’s three remaining years in office. The agenda is full: among other projects, the president is trying to purge police units and restock others; and his government is continuing the long process or moving the justice system from the inquisitorial to the accusatory system (see Wilson Center background paper on the efforts here - pdf).   

Finally, the escape will have a devastating impact on the relations between the United States and Mexico. Various US courts were seeking the extradition of Guzman following his capture last year, but Mexico never really considered them.

Guzman now joins Rafael Caro Quintero, the former head of the Guadalajara Cartel whose early release severely strained US-Mexico relations. Caro Quintero is wanted in the United States for his participation in the murder of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent in 1985. The Mexican government has been trying to recapture Quintero since his release in August 2013.

The longer Chapo eludes the government, the worse it may get for Peña Nieto. Media routinely referred to him as the "eternal fugitive" prior to his capture, a title he has now regained. 

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Elites and Organized Crime: Conceptual Framework - Organized Crime

Elites and Organized Crime: Conceptual Framework - Organized Crime

This project defines organized crime as: a structured group of people that associate on a regular and prolonged basis to benefit from illicit activities and illegal markets. This group can be local, national or transnational in nature, and its existence is maintained using violence and threats; corruption...

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Jorge 40'

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Jorge 40'

Rodrigo Tovar Pupo never imagined it would come to this: dressed in an orange jumpsuit in a Washington DC courtroom and standing in front of a United States federal judge, the grandson of a wealthy Colombian cattle rancher and nephew to a governor was facing a possible...

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Don Berna'

Colombia Elites and Organized Crime: 'Don Berna'

By the end of 1993, Pablo Escobar was cornered. The cocaine king -- known as "El Patrón" -- was running out of money and options. His top assassins were either dead or had turned themselves in. Almost all of the senior members of the Medellín Cartel were...

Elites and Organized Crime: Preface

Elites and Organized Crime: Preface

Organized crime is not an abstract concept for me. I grew up in Oak Park, a leafy suburb of Chicago with a population of about 60,000. In general, it was a very low crime city, which is perhaps why many mobsters made their homes there, among them...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros

On the morning of April 5, 1988, Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros left his palatial Tegucigalpa estate for a jog. Matta Ballesteros was wanted for murder, drug trafficking and other crimes in several countries, but in Honduras he felt safe. He regularly hosted parties for high-level officials at...

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs. They love the money it brings, funds which have allowed them to survive and even threaten to topple the state at the end of the 1990s. They hate the corruption and stigma narcotics have also brought to...

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The CICIG

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The CICIG

Like any arm of the justice system, the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) had its battles with elites who used their charm and their muscle to try to influence what and who the celebrated commission...

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: The Cachiros

Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: The Cachiros

As it tends to happen in Honduras, the news began as a well-heeled rumor: Javier Rivera Maradiaga, the oldest of the three Rivera Maradiaga brothers still alive and leader of the feared and powerful Honduran drug trafficking group known as the Cachiros, had handed himself in to...

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The 'Huistas'

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: The 'Huistas'

In the northwest corner of Guatemala, a little known criminal organization known as the "Huistas" dominates the underworld, in large part due its ties with businessmen, law enforcement officials and politicians.

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Guatemala Elites and Organized Crime: Introduction

Guatemala is Central America’s most populous country and its largest economy. But an intransigent elite, an ambitious military and a weak state has opened the way for organized crime to flourish, especially since the return of democracy.