Mexican drug lord’s dramatic prison break roils Washington

Mexican drug lord’s dramatic prison break roils Washington

The escape of a top drug lord from a maximum-security prison in Mexico is roiling Washington and causing heartburn for the Obama administration.

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán escaped over the weekend through an elaborate mile-long tunnel, dealing an embarrassing blow to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who had pinned his nation’s reputation on keeping him locked up.

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Mexico a few months ago had rebuffed the Obama administration’s plea to extradite Guzmán to the United States, where he faces multiple charges for organized crime and drug trafficking.

At the time, Mexican officials insisted that their ability to hold Guzmán was a point of national pride. The chance that he could escape again — after a riveting prison break in 2001 involving a laundry cart — “does not exist,” Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said in January.

But escape he did, walking to freedom through a tunnel that had lighting, ventilation and stairs.

Now, the White House must reconsider how much it can trust its southern neighbor as it takes political fire from both sides of the aisle.

“We’ve made quite clear to the Mexicans our interests in ensuring that [Guzmán] faces justice here in the United States, and that’s why we’re going to continue to be supportive of the effort that’s already under way to capture him,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Monday.

However, Mexico “is a sovereign government” and will have “principal responsibility” for recapturing Guzmán, Earnest said.

While the White House dealt with the diplomatic fallout, Guzmán’s escape created a stir on the campaign trail, with Republican presidential candidate Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: 'Haven't thought about' pardons for Mueller target Pence: Rocket attack 'proves that Hamas is not a partner for peace' Conservation remains a core conservative principle MORE claiming vindication.

Trump said the prison break showed his controversial claims about Mexican immigrants bringing drugs and crime into the U.S. “turned out to be true.”

“I told you so!” Trump declared on Sunday. 

Democrats, too, pointed the finger at the Obama administration for not exerting more pressure on Mexico to extradite drug traffickers to the United States.

On Monday, Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas) called for the U.S. to “exercise stronger diplomatic muscle” to ensure that Guzmán and two indicted former governors who aided the cartels are brought to America.

The U.S.’s inability to get Mexico to extradite Guzmán “is an insult to the law enforcement and prosecutorial personnel who have worked for years to build criminal cases against these drug profiteers,” Vela said in a message posted on Facebook. 

Experts said there would certainly be extra pressure for Mexico to extradite cartel leaders and corrupt officials to the U.S. going forward.

But in the wake of a three-week manhunt for two convicted killers who broke out of a New York prison, the White House’s arguments might not be convincing, said Susan Kaufman Purcell, the head of the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy.

“People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” she said.

“We have now had an episode that shows that our maximum-security prisons are not so maximum security.”

Still, the audacity of Guzmán’s escape is hard to match.

As the billionaire head of the notorious Sinaloa Cartel, Guzmán — whose nickname translates to “shorty” — was once considered the world’s most powerful drug kingpin. After an initial arrest in 1993, he broke out of prison for the first time in 2001, reportedly by hiding in a laundry cart with the help of prison guards.

He lived for years as one of the most wanted men in North America before being arrested at a resort in Mazatlán, Mexico, last February. U.S. intelligence and drug officials provided major support for that arrest.

After 17 months in prison, he was last seen entering his cell’s shower area at 8:52 p.m. Saturday.

From there, he slid his way into a 20-inch by 20-inch hole, climbed down a 32-foot ladder and walked the mile down the 5.5-foot tall tunnel to freedom. The tunnel ran for about a mile underground and opened to an abandoned property nearby.

After that he disappeared, prompting a massive manhunt.

“This represents, without a doubt, an affront to the Mexican state,” Peña Nieto said while on a state visit to France.

The sophistication of the tunnel has prompted speculation that Guzmán almost certainly had help from the inside. Eighteen prison officials are being interrogated by Mexico’s attorney general’s office.

Guzmán pioneered the use of intricate tunnels running below the U.S.-Mexico border to smuggle massive amounts of drugs into the U.S. and also depended on an elaborate tunnel system in Mexico to avoid authorities for years.

If he makes it back to his home state of Sinaloa, where Guzmán enjoys massive influence and wealth, there is a chance he will never be captured again.

While the prison break won’t necessarily lead to an uptick in cartel violence, it is a stunning, symbolic setback for Mexico, which has long been lectured about making criminal justice and security reforms.

“The perception of the Mexican government and its capacity has changed, both for officials as well as the public,” said Christopher Wilson, the deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“Everyone knew that’s what was on the line,” he added.

Still, the Obama administration has few options.

“The U.S. just cannot go in a huff and say ‘Okay we don’t work with you anymore,’ ” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The best outcome, Felbab-Brown said, would be a wholesale review of Mexico’s security policy, though the odds for that do not appear good.