Monday, July 13, 2015

El Chapo Guzman escapes through yet another tunnel, embarrassing Mexican authorities (July 13, 2015)

Cementing his reputation as a Robin Hood-narco folk hero, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s largest and most lucrative trafficker of heroin, cocaine and marijuana, escaped from Mexican maximum security prison Altiplano on Saturday. This is the second time he's pulled of such a slip, landing an important blow to the Mexican government, whose capture of the fugitive drug kingpin last year was a major achievement.

Guzmán escaped through a mile-long tunnel stretching from his jail cell's shower (the only place unmonitored by security cameras, explains the Los Angeles Times) to a small cinderblock house under construction amid fields. (The Wall Street Journal has a diagram of the tunnel.) Neighbors saw nothing unusual until a helicopter touched down outside on Saturday. The well-constructed tunnel, which was illuminated, perforated with PVC piping for ventilation and equipped with an adapted motorcycle-on-rails to remove construction materials, indicates a well planned and well financed operation that may have occurred with the complicity of officials in the prison, reports the Washington Post.

The operation was planned for at least a year, reports Animal Político, which reports on construction details and the scheme. At the other end of the tunnel Guzmán was received by a group that had prepared various changes of clothing, food and an escape vehicle. 

"This obviously required a great deal of logistics from both inside and outside the prison," said Raúl Benítez Manaut, a Mexican national-security expert, quoted in the Wall Street Journal. "Plans probably were being made from the moment he entered the prison."

National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido says 18 employees from various part of the Altiplano prison 90 kilometers (56 miles) west of Mexico City have been taken in for questioning, reports El Daily Post.

Altiplano is considered the main and most secure of Mexico’s federal prisons and it also houses Zetas drug cartel leader Miguel Ángel Treviño, and Edgar Valdés Villarreal, known as “La Barbie,” of the Beltrán Leyva cartel.

In his previous escape from maximum security prison, in 2001, Guzmán hid in a laundry cart and was wheeled out of jail with the help of corrupt prison guards who were later convicted.

Guzmán heads a business empire that accounts for an estimated one quarter of the illegal narcotics shipped to the U.S., according to American and Mexican government estimates, reports the Wall Street Journal. He also earned a place on Forbes magazine’s billionaires list.

After Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011, Mr. Guzmán was widely seen as the world’s most-wanted man, and had a joint U.S.-Mexican bounty of $7 million on his head when the government recaptured him in 2014.

The escape is humiliating for President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration, which had proclaimed the arrest of Mr. Guzmán and leaders of other drug cartels as crucial achievements in restoring order and sovereignty to a country long beleaguered by the horrific violence associated with organized crime, reports the New York Times.

In an interview with Univision TV last year, Peña Nieto said he would be asking his interior minister every day if Guzmán was being well guarded. Another escape "would be more than regrettable; it would be unforgivable for the government to not take the precautions to ensure that what happened last time would not be repeated."

It's particularly problematic considering he campaigned on one main promise — to diminish drug cartel violence — and had claimed success in attacking drug gang capos like no administration before it, arresting or killing essentially all the top leadership of the Zetas, Beltran Leyva and Knights Templar cartels, explains the Associated Press.

It was a highlight for an administration struggling on other fronts, including a lackluster economy and scandals over the disappearance of 43 college students, and the purchase by the president's wife of a mansion, known as the "white house," from a government contractor.

Though this was perhaps Mexico’s most spectacular prison escape since the previous one by Mr. Guzmán, the country has seen many breakouts, which have often occurred with the collusion of the authorities, notes the New York Times.

The news came just as Peña Nieto arrived in Paris on Sunday for a state visit, accompanied by more than 400 officials and business leaders.

The cartel leader's escape will be a thorny issue with American officials, who had requested he be extradited to face charges in the U.S. Both time Guzmán was captured by Mexican security forces it was with the assistance of U.S. authorities.

Under Peña Nieto, Mexico has all but eliminated the extradition of crime bosses that was an anchor of his predecessor, President Felipe Calderón. Guzmán’s second great escape now throws those policies into disarray, say analysts quoted in the Wall Street Journal.

According to a report from the Congressional Research Service in May, extraditions from Mexico to the U.S. peaked at 115 in 2012, the last year of Pena Nieto's predecessor, Felipe Calderon. There were 66 last year, reports the Associated Press.

Experts on the drug underworld were left dumbfounded and predicted the escape could bolster American demands to extradite top crime figures, particularly when United States law enforcement personnel have played major roles in many cases, and not without personal risk, reports the New York Times.

"Chapo’s escape is extremely disappointing to the United States," said Mike Vigil, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s former director of international operations, in the Washington Post. "Within 48 hours, Chapo will reassume control of the Sinaloa cartel, which means more violence for Mexico and more drugs to the U.S."

Guzmán faces indictments in at least seven American federal courts on charges that include narcotics trafficking, murder, assault, kidnapping and torture. But in January Mexico’s attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, told the Associated Press that Mr. Guzmán would never serve time in the United States. "I could accept extradition, but at the time that I choose. El Chapo must stay here to complete his sentence, and then I will extradite him. ... So about 300 or 400 years later — it will be a while."

Mexican officials said trying and imprisoning Guzmán was a matter of national sovereignty. Though the Washington Post notes that"many in Mexico City concede that the government would be loath to send him north, knowing he could reveal the extent to which his cartel’s tentacles were able to penetrate the highest levels of the Mexican government and security apparatus."

And in fact, Guzmán's legal defense team had focused on avoiding extradition, reports Animal Político, though the U.S. never formally requested it and the Mexican government rejected the idea. 

Authorities put the jail on lockdown after Guzmán's escape and flights out of the nearby Toluca airport were grounded. In the hours after the breakout, the government began a sweeping manhunt, calling states of emergency in the surrounding areas. El Daily Post has updates on the manhunt.

Even with Guzmán in jail, his Sinaloa organization remained the dominant narcotics smuggling power in Mexico, with trafficking networks that spread across the United States. Guzmán’s cartel sends more cocaine and marijuana than any other into the United States, according to DEA officials, and it accounts for more than half of the heroin surging into U.S. communities as overdose deaths skyrocket.

Mr. Guzmán’s escape will likely strengthen the Sinaloa Cartel, according to the Wall Street Journal. Their former main rivals, the violent Zeta gang, has been crushed by the capture or killing of most of its top leaders, spawning new gangs racing to secure areas along Mexico’s Gulf coast. Meanwhile, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel is challenging the Sinaloa group in its own backyard, along the Pacific coast.

Escaping through a tunnel is fitting for Guzmán, who is widely credited with pioneering the use of tunnels to smuggle drugs across the Mexican-U.S. border. The New York Times Magazine has a (very timely) in-depth piece, "Cocaine Incorporated," that goes into the history of the Sinaloa Cartel's rise.

" ... Chapo’s greatest contribution to the evolving tradecraft of drug trafficking was one of those innovations that seem so logical in hindsight it’s a wonder nobody thought of it before: a tunnel. In the late 1980s, Chapo hired an architect to design an underground passageway from Mexico to the United States. What appeared to be a water faucet outside the home of a cartel attorney in the border town of Agua Prieta was in fact a secret lever that, when twisted, activated a hydraulic system that opened a hidden trapdoor underneath a pool table inside the house. The passage ran more than 200 feet, directly beneath the fortifications along the border, and emerged inside a warehouse the cartel owned in Douglas, Ariz. Chapo pronounced it 'cool.'"

Guzmán built a warren of tunnels in Culiacán, the capital of the state of Sinaloa, where his cartel was based and where he was believed to have been hiding for years. Days before his capture last year, Mexican marines and American law enforcement officers raided the home of his ex-wife in Culiacán, only to find that he had fled though a secret door beneath a bathtub that led to a network of tunnels and sewer canals connecting to six other houses.

Mexicans joked on Twitter that the tunnels are likely the best infrastructure built in recent years under the Mexican government.

The NYTimes Magazine piece also goes into a comparison of the Sinaloa Cartel and The Zetas, noting that the former is violent but more pragmatic than the Zetas in its deployment of violence.

"It’s a curious rivalry between these two organizations, because their business models are really very different. The Zetas have diversified beyond drugs to extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking, blossoming into what officials call a 'polycriminal organization.' Sinaloa, by contrast, has mostly tended to stick to its core competence of trafficking. According to one captured cartel member, Chapo specifically instructed his subordinates not to dabble in protection rackets and insisted that Sinaloa territory remain 'calm' and 'controlled.'"

Guzmán has lived as a fugitive before, though he wasn't exactly out of sight. Over 13 years at large, Guzmán enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as an escape artist, often aided by warnings provided by informants within Mexico’s security forces. A popular story is that he would enter a restaurant with his henchmen, order everyone to turn in their cellphones, then eat and pay the bill for all those present.

Guzmán is viewed as a Robin Hood folk hero especially in his native Sinaloa, which will make his capture extremely difficult say some experts. He is known for economic largess in the area. The Los Angeles Times reports that "When The Times visited his hometown of Badiraguato, in the highlands of Sinaloa, in 2011, a black SUV immediately began tailing the reporter and photographer. People were reluctant to speak of Guzman, or only spoke in glowing terms. When another Times reporter returned last year, after his arrest, residents feared a wave of unemployment and economic downturn."

"Such is his charisma, a vicious criminal to many, a generous benefactor to others."

People who have met Guzmán, who has a third-grade education, say he comes across as down-to-earth and intelligent, reports the Wall Street Journal. He described himself as a simple farmer when arrested by Mexican police early in his career, but admitted he had a penchant for Russian-made AK-47s.

News Briefs

  • Papal roundup: As anti-corruption protests roil several Latin American countries, Pope Francis on Saturday criticized corruption, calling it the "gangrene of a people." Several pieces analyze the Pope's overall South America message after his rockstar, three-country tour over the past week. He left "behind a body of messages that inspired, vindicated — and sometimes unsettled — a region that wildly embraced Latin America's first pope," says the Miami Herald. Every word uttered by the pontiff over the eight day trip was analyzed as Catholics around the world debated the degree to which Francis was nudging the church to the left or simply putting his simple touch on long-standing doctrine, explains the Los Angeles Times. His most notable messages were against rampant capitalism and runaway consumerism, notes that piece. His visits to Ecuador and Bolivia, which embrace "21st century socialism" are a vindication of those countries' policies, says an analyst in the Herald. But the takeaway from the trip is heavily debated in the region -- especially in Ecuador where both government supporters and opponents say the pope's words were intended to support their vision, says the New York Times. In a brief speech upon his arrival in Quito, the capital, Francis referred to "this Ecuadorean people that has gotten to its feet with dignity." What Francis didn't say was equally important, argues the New York Times. The trip burnished his credentials as a new kind of pontiff, issuing a searing apology to indigenous people for church crimes more than a half millennium old, argues the Associated Press. His silence on various sensitive issues was noted repeatedly throughout his tour, particularly in Paraguay, where activists had hoped for more on issues that included gay rights, killings over land disputes and the persistence of widespread economic inequality. Yet the Wall Street Journal notes the inclusion of a gay rights campaigner in Paraguay's events, a message in one of the region’s most socially conservative, heavily Catholic countries, as well as the only one with no sexual antidiscrimination laws. The Herald also notes the importance of the pontiff's message that Bolivia and Chile should find a negotiated solution to their longtime dispute that has denied Bolivia access to the sea. Chile had made diplomatic efforts to ensure that Francis would stay neutral on the subject, but the pope waded into the controversy anyway, calling for dialogue to resolve the long-simmering dispute. That caused jubilation in Bolivia. The Chilean foreign minister later said that he considered the pope’s words positive, reports the New York Times. What will his message be in a September trip to Cuba and the  U.S. wonders the Herald -- will he maintain the discourse on the evils of capitalism in Cuba and the importance of preserving the environment in the U.S.?
  • The Colombian government promised on Sunday to de-escalate military action against the FARC if the guerrillas uphold their unilateral ceasefire, reports Reuters, providing a breakthrough in peace talks that had been threatened by an escalation of battlefield violence. (See Friday's post.) It's the first time President Juan Manuel Santos has accepted to reduct operations agains the FARC since the beginning of peace negotiations in November of 2012, reports AFP. But Santos warned that the continuity of the process will depend on the FARC's actions in the next four months.
  • The New Yorker published a piece on Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman's death in January, a few days after accusing President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and government officials of covering up Iranian responsibility for a 1994 terrorist bombing. (See May 14th's post.) The piece delves into the background of the polemic investigation into Argentina's most serious terrorist attack, which has been ongoing for 20 years with few results. The piece has colorful information about Nisman and Nestor and Cristina Kirchner, giving a lot more information on a topic that has been covered extensively but superficially by the international press. "Nisman's report, evidently assembled in haste, is a rambling and sometimes maddening document. Although Nisman accused Kirchner of directing the secret deal and [Foreign Minister Hector] Timerman of carrying it out, there is no evidence tying either one of them directly to the alleged conspiracy," explains the piece. Kirchner scooped the magazine -- or insured herself against misquotes -- by releasing her entire interview with reporter Dexter Filkins, reports La Nación.
  • The Igarapé Institute's research on dynamics of population displacement was featured in O Globo, which reports that as many as 1,6 million people were displaced by disasters, violence and public works between since 2009. The piece highlights the many challenges of development, disaster and violence-induced displacement and resettlement in Brazil. The underlying research is featured in the Journal of Refugee Studies
  • Vice has a piece on the polemic relationship between Veracruz state governor, Javier Duarte, and the press. Since Duarte took office in December 2010, 12 journalists have been killed in Veracruz. Some tallies say 13, to include a reporter who worked for Veracruz news outlets but was killed this year just across the border with the state of Oaxaca. On July 1 — during an event marking Free Speech Day — Duarte made a chilling warning before a group of journalists, reports Vice. "Behave. We all know who is on the wrong path. We all know who in one way or another has connections with the underworld," Duarte said. "Please behave, I beg you. … It's for your own good." Mexico, one of the worst countries in the world to practice journalism. In 2014, five reporters were killed overall, which means the current year is on track to double the tally of murdered journalists in Mexico from a year ago -- so far six journalists have been killed.
  • US district judge Jed Rakoff on Friday rejected Petrobras’s efforts throw out a $98 billion lawsuit over allegations that executives at the Brazilian oil company and senior politicians were involved in a huge money-laundering and corruption scheme dubbed "Operation Carwash," reports The Guardian. Senior executives and Brazilian politicians are likely to be called to appear before the New York court, if the class action lawsuit goes ahead.
  • U.S. Republican Senator Charles Grassley is demanding the American Red Cross explain how it spent nearly half a billion dollars raised after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, reports ProPublica. Grassley’s letter was prompted by a ProPublica and NPR report last month on how the charity broke multiple promises in its effort to help the impoverished country, including by building just six permanent homes. (See June 4th's briefs.)
  • A piece in Nueva Sociedad analyzes new and old fractures in Venezuelan society, arguing that only pre-Chávez tensions can explain the utility of Chavez's narrative, and also the current persistence of Chavismo, despite Venezuela's extremely high inflation and economic difficulties. "Today, this political phenomenon is in crisis, but the opposition can achieve neither the strategy nor the force to displace it from power and inaugurate a post-Chavez era."
  • The Miami Herald has a piece on Cuba's tech-startup community, where young entrepreneurs aren't letting low internet penetration get in the way of their ambition. 
  • The IMF sharply lowered its growth forecast for Latin America and the Caribbean, last week, dropping to 0.5 percent in 2015 and 1.7 percent next year, citing lower commodity prices and China's transition to a new growth model, reports EFE.

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