‘El Chapo’ escapes again. What could it mean for US-Mexico relations?

Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman broke out of a maximum security prison in Mexico, authorities said Sunday. 

Henry Romero/Reuters/File
Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman (L) is escorted by soldiers during a presentation at the Navy's airstrip in Mexico City in this Feb. 22, 2014 file photo. Mexico's most notorious drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman has escaped from his high security prison in central Mexico, the country's national security commission (CNS) said on July 12, 2015.

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has done it again.

The head of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel has for the second time broken out of a maximum security prison in Mexico, authorities said Sunday. The escape, occurring just over a year since Mr. Guzman’s much-publicized recapture, is a blow to President Enrique Peña Nieto, who won office in 2012 on the promise of cracking down on the country’s top drug lords and cycle of drug violence.

His escape could also strain relationships with the United States, as the Sinaloa cartel continues to smuggle billions of dollars worth of cocaine, methamphetamines, and marijuana into the US, and is largely responsible for supplying the heroin epidemic in the Northeast, CNN reported.

Guzman was last seen around 9 p.m. Saturday in the shower area of the Altiplano prison, Mexico’s National Security Commission said in a statement. Surveillance cameras lost sight of him shortly after that, and when guards checked his cell, they found it empty.

At a news conference Sunday, Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said Guzman escaped through a mile-long tunnel that opened into the shower area of his cell.

The incident calls to mind Guzman’s first prison break in 2001, when he escaped from a maximum security facility in Jalisco state in a laundry cart. He stayed beyond the reach of the law until 2014, when Mexican Navy forces arrested him in an oceanfront condo in Mazatlán, less than 150 miles from where the Sinaloa cartel was based.

At the time, “Guzman had a $5 million bounty on his head in the US and had been sought by Mexican and American authorities for over a decade,” The Christian Science Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi wrote. His capture, Mr. LaFranchi continued, represented “US-Mexico cooperation in the long-sensitive areas of law enforcement and intelligence sharing.”

In early 2015, the US filed an extradition request for Guzman, Forbes reported, but Mexico Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam argued that keeping the drug kingpin in Mexico was a matter of national sovereignty.

“El Chapo must stay here to complete his sentence and then I will extradite him,” Murillo Karam told the Associated Press. “So about 300 or 400 years later – it will be a while.”

He dismissed concerns that Guzman might escape a second time, telling the AP that such a risk “does not exist.”

Guzman, who faces multiple federal drug trafficking indictments in both the US and Mexico, transformed the Sinaloa cartel from a garden-variety operation into Mexico’s most notorious group, building links to suppliers and retailers in far-flung countries like Malaysia and Australia, and starting feuds that rattled virtually the entire nation, Patrick Corcoran wrote for InSight Crime.

He was also the first Mexican drug trafficker to ferry drugs under the US-Mexico border via elaborate tunnels, which he also used as escape routes from his many hideouts, CBS News reported.

Officials have since launched a massive manhunt and closed Toluca International Airport, about 20 miles from the prison. Eighteen employees of the Altiplano prison have been taken in for questioning, according to the AP.

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