Concern That Mexico Will Not Be Able To Hold Onto 'El Chapo'

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Concern That Mexico Will Not Be Able To Hold Onto 'El Chapo'

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by soldiers during a presentation at the hangar belonging to the office of the Attorney General in Mexico City, Mexico January 8, 2016. (Reuters Photo)

MEXICO CITY:  The last time Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was behind bars, his home was a 60-square-foot room with a concrete slab for a bed, a cold-water sink, and a hole in the ground for a toilet, inside the most restrictive wing of what was long touted as Mexico's highest-security prison.

And that is where Guzman returned Friday night, after flouting those security measures six months ago when he escaped through a tunnel. The question now is, can Federal Social Re-adaptation Center No. 1, otherwise known as Altiplano prison, hold him this time?

Given the police and military patrols swarming the exterior of the prison, set amid farmland west of Mexico City, it appears that Mexican authorities are taking their recaptured prisoner seriously. And experts assume that the laxness seen before his escape in July - such as prison guards playing solitaire instead of watching their monitors - will be stiffened up for the time being. He may not be housed on the first floor again - the perfect spot for a tunnel master.

But risks remain. Private property and construction projects abut the perimeter of the prison. Guzman's lawyers are likely to attempt to delay extradition as long as possible, and the billionaire drug lord still has unmatched abilities to bribe or threaten authorities into helping him escape.

"He might not escape the same way," Alejandro Hope, a security expert and former Mexican intelligence official, said. "He might find another way of getting out of prison. But my guess is, his strategy will be to prolong his stay at Altiplano as long as he can.

"But the longer he stays there, the more likely it is he will find a way to escape."

Guzman was captured Friday in his home state of Sinaloa. Mexican authorities caught up with him there - but not before the actor Sean Penn got to him first. Penn, working for Rolling Stone magazine, arranged to interview Guzman in October, in a meeting set up by Mexican actress Kate del Castillo. Mexican officials now say that they were aware of the interview and that it ultimately helped them move in on the fugitive.

Guzman has faced charges for organized crime, murder and drug trafficking in an array of U.S. jurisdictions dating to the mid-1990s. When he was apprehended last time, the United States requested his extradition, but Mexico refused. This time, Mexico has initiated the extradition process for Guzman, but Mexican officials expect it will take months to complete.

Several prisons in Mexico have received a stamp of approval from the American Correctional Association. Altiplano received its accreditation in 2012. But it lapsed last year, and the Mexican government agreed to do a thorough review of staffing, procedures and the prison's ability to monitor high-value detainees before the approval was renewed.

To a visitor, Altiplano is imposing. People must pass through a gantlet of metal detectors, turnstiles, observation rooms and more than a dozen locked gates, some with finger-print ID sensors, before reaching the wing where Guzman was held. And the intense scrutiny of the Mexican government will make it harder for him to perform any tricks.

"I can assure you that for the moment we will not have a new escape, because all the attention of the Mexican government is on that man," said Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez, a security analyst and former intelligence official.

Guerrero worries that Mexico might not hold onto Guzman long enough, in its rush to extradite, before Guzman can provide intelligence that might help capture corrupt government officials he has worked with - or other drug lords.

"What happened with El Chapo was something extraordinary, because El Chapo is someone exceptional, and he has abilities unlike any other Mexican capo," Guerrero said.

But the biggest threat remains corruption. Several prison guards and their superiors in the penal system were arrested following Guzman's escape last summer. Video surfaced revealing that right before he fled through a hole in the floor of his shower stall, loud banging and construction noise was audible as his accomplices cut through the concrete floor.

And Guzman appears to have received special treatment. His attorneys in the past filed several judicial requests, known as "amparos" that allowed him extra visitors and delayed the legal proceedings against him.

For the year and a half he was behind bars, Guzman lived in Cell 20, the last of ten cells at the end of a dingy hallway in the wing for the country's most dangerous criminals. There were surveillance cameras that could see everything, except the small portion shielded by a waist-high privacy wall in his shower stall, the exact spot he escaped. That hole descended 30 feet until it reached a mile-long tunnel that ended at a cinder-block house in the cornfields south of the prison.

© 2016 The Washington Post 

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