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Can the Mexican government be trusted to investigate drug lord El Chapo’s jailbreak?

Motorbike Chapo Guzman getaway tunnel
A motorcycle rigged on a rail system found inside Joaquin "el Chapo" Guzman's jailbreak tunnel.
Credit: Yuri Cortez

Update: A Mexican court on Sept. 7 formally charged four more prison workers for allegedly helping Joaquin Guzman escape his cell.

LIMA, Peru — Narco kingpin Joaquin “el Chapo” Guzman’s escape from Mexico's highest security prison last month was so audacious it could have come straight out of Netflix.

The United States, which backs Mexico in its drug war, is baffled by the jailbreak.

US Drug Enforcement Administration officials believe Guzman's still in Mexico. They just announced a tip line, to go along with the State Department’s $5 million reward for information leading to his recapture. Mexico's offering $3.8 million.

The problem is many doubt that Mexican law enforcement is fully committed to bringing the ruthless head of the Sinaloa cartel to justice; at least some officials are feared to be in his pocket.

Here's a recap: On July 11, “el Chapo” (Mexican Spanish for “Shorty”) vanished down a hole in his prison shower and through a mile-long tunnel — fitted with lighting, oxygen tanks, and even a motorbike on rails.

Many think jail officials had to be involved. The whole fiasco could wreck the legacy of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Peña Nieto himself pretty much predicted as much: After his officials finally caught Guzman in February 2014, the president said it would be “unforgivable” were he to escape again.

“The Peña Nieto administration has not only mishandled this situation entirely but there has been no political accountability for the escape,” says Dwight Dyer, a senior researcher on Mexico with security consultancy Control Risks. 

“In other democracies, the interior minister would have had to resign, but here only lower tier officials have lost their jobs.”

So far, seven workers have been charged in connection with the getaway. Some were guards in Guzman’s wing. One monitored the closed-circuit TV images from his cell.

The head of the federal police's intelligence unit was also fired.

More from GlobalPost: Watch this video of Chapo Guzman escaping Mexican jail 

Yet media have zoomed in on key decisions that facilitated the jailbreak, like failing to rotate el Chapo from cell to cell, and switching off of motion sensor alarms. 

Leading Mexican newspaper La Jornada questioned why officials didn't properly seal off the crime scene, Guzman’s cell and the tunnel. It cited several attorneys and criminal justice experts warning that the investigation could now be fatally compromised.

Dyer, of Control Risks, agrees. He notes how entire TV crews were allowed into the cell and tunnel in an effort to demonstrate the “miraculous” nature of el Chapo’s escape.

“The [Mexican] attorney general’s office, and in particular its criminal investigations department, is known for shoddy work, so I would not be surprised if the crime scene was not carefully managed or the forensic evidence not properly handled,” Dyer told GlobalPost.

Adalberto Santana, an expert on Latin America narco-trafficking at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, also highlights how Guzman’s escape was likely to have relied on the help of multiple prison officials, responding to a combination of bribes and threats.

“The cartels’ ability to coopt is not just about economic power but also about its power to use violence,” Santana says.

'No. 1 fugitive'

The DEA has called Guzman the world's No. 1 fugitive. Just weeks before he escaped the Altiplano prison, Washington had requested his extradition to the US, where he faces multiple federal drug trafficking indictments.

He previously broke out of another high-security prison in 2001. He then grew from regional player in Sinaloa to become Mexico’s — and arguably the world’s — most powerful trafficker. 

Forbes once estimated his worth at $1 billion, but the magazine subsequently removed him from its billionaires list, saying it was “unable to reach Guzman to verify figures.”

Much of his fortune was made using secret tunnels to transport cocaine from Mexico to the US. In the process, he’s suspected of ordering thousands of murders.

“This just shows the economic and logistical capacity of the Sinaloa cartel. They could dig a thousand more tunnels like this if they had to,” says Santana.

The attorney general’s office did not respond to GlobalPost’s requests for comment.

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