Tuesday 20 March 2018

Drug lord El Chapo eludes manhunt after prison pampering

In this photo provided by Mexico's attorney general, authorities inspect the exit of the tunnel they claim was used by drug lord Joaquin
In this photo provided by Mexico's attorney general, authorities inspect the exit of the tunnel they claim was used by drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to break out of the Altiplano maximum security prison in Almoloya, west of Mexico City, Sunday, July 12, 2015. A massive manhunt is underway after Guzman, escaped from the maximum security prison through the tunnel that opened into the shower area of his cell, the country's top security official announced. (Mexico's Attorney General's Office via AP)

James Frederick

The elaborate escape of Mexico's top drug lord from a maximum security prison reads like a crime thriller. Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman slipped through a hole in his shower cell, descended a 30ft ladder where a mile-long tunnel - equipped with ventilation and lighting - led him to safety.

It was his second successful escape, and the 10,000 police and soldiers hunting him seem utterly clueless as to his whereabouts.

That the country's top criminal could make such an audacious getaway has stunned everyone - except Mexicans.

A poll in Reforma, Mexico's most-read newspaper, says 54pc of respondents don't believe the tunnel story and think officials may have simply let him walk out of the prison's front door.

"Who knows if it was even El Chapo locked up?" said Eduardo Sanchez, at his newspaper stand in Mexico City.

"When he was last captured, they said it was him but it looked like a different person to me."

Some here will tell you the government broke its end of a deal with Guzman's Sinaloa cartel, so El Chapo ran. Others will say his lock-up was meaningless, that he kept running the cartel as always.

Incarcerating and trying Guzman in Mexico was a big bet for the government because US officials were eager to extradite him.

"Mexico wanted to prove they were up to the task of combating the big cartels," said Chris Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank.

But a mere 18 months later Guzman is free. And his brief lock-up in Altiplano, the country's highest security prison, appears far from arduous. The surveillance footage of Guzman's cell shows all sorts of luxury items the country's top criminal shouldn't have enjoyed: an iPad, mobile phones, folders and notebooks.

His lawyer visited constantly, bringing mysterious guests along. Guzman allegedly organised 137 prisoners - including cartel rivals - to file a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission over the quality of prison meals, while supposedly in solitary confinement.

Meanwhile, on the outside, his cronies were preparing his escape, and at a bargain price.

It started with a €300 payment to build a house on land 500 metres from the prison's guard towers. Neighbours say no more than five men were seen at the house at once, a lean excavation crew.

They tunnelled right into Guzman's shower, a spot that would have been easy to find with the GPS on his gadgets. Apparently, not a sound was heard by guards as they smashed through the floor - his neighbour, the head of a rival cartel, Mario Cardenas Guillen, "heard nothing". The hole was in a blind spot for security cameras, and on the night of July 11, Guzman slipped away.

It took the prison 18 minutes to register that its top prisoner was missing.

President Enrique Pena Nieto's top security officials scrambled to begin the search and to calm the conspiracy chatter.

Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, the interior minister, pointed the finger at human rights for the surveillance blind spots in Guzman's shower and the prison's flimsy tracking bracelet, which he ripped off before fleeing.

The Attorney General's office took nearly 48 hours to distribute the most recent photo of El Chapo, hair shaved and without his signature moustache, after thousands of police had already been out searching with the few, old photos of the illusive kingpin.

"There have been lots of things [Minister Osorio] can't explain," said Alberto Islas, a security analyst with the firm Risk-Evaluation. "It's just been a series of contradictions. They don't have a clue what's going on."

President Nieto insists he has "full confidence" El Chapo will be recaptured. But almost everyone else in Mexico seems to doubt this.

"The person most hurt by this is President Pena Nieto," said Mr Islas. "If they don't recapture him during this term, he'll go down in history as the man who let El Chapo escape a second time."

Seven prison officials have been charged so far, out of 22 arrested. But of Guzman, there is not a trace.

In 2011 Forbes magazine ranked Guzmán as one of the most powerful people in the world every year since 2009, ranking 41st, 60th and 55th respectively. He was named as the 10th richest man in Mexico and 1,140th richest in the world in 2011, with a net worth of roughly US$1bn.



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