Could stronger prison floors have prevented 'El Chapo' escape?

Journalists tour the cell of Mexico’s most wanted man. 

“El Chapo,” head of a cartel responsible for 25 percent of the drugs that enter the United States from Mexico, escaped out of his Mexican maximum prison security cell on Sunday for the second time. The self-made billionaire and “public enemy number 1” in Chicago took a surprisingly simple route out of his walled fortress: a tunnel. But government-led tours through the tunnel show that the floors may have been in violation of prison standards.

“It’s kind of like a joke,” Carl Pike, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration official, said to The New York Times on July 14. “Gee, a tunnel. Who would have thought?”

“El Chapo” must have slowly sawed through the flooring in the shower, leaving a rough 20 inch square hole. The flooring by the shower is only a couple inches thick and was not reinforced, in violation of prison policies which call for thicker walls and floors. A 30-foot drop let Joaquin Guzman Loera (“El Chapo”) fall to the base of the well-equipped tunnel, complete with lighting, oxygen tanks, ventilation, and tracks to move the dirt. The air quality may have even tested by a bird, nicknamed “El Chapito,” which was found in Guzman’s cell wastebasket; the bird also could have been a symbol for El Chapo to escape. 

While the sparse 6-foot by 10-foot prison cell holds a couple concrete shelves, a rubber mattress, a toilet, and “Mexico’s most famous shower,” all under video camera surveillance, the drug trafficker still managed to vanish under the prison floor in a daring escape. The path to the cell is even blocked by 17 separate metal gates.

Prison warden Jaime Fernandez had only been on the job four days when when Mexico’s most-wanted man escaped. The last time Mr. Guzman escaped from prison through bribery and a laundry cart, the warden was removed. Reporters in the prison have noted discrepancies between the surveillance footage of El Chapo and the other inmates, leading to suspicions of inside help. Notably, Guzman sported longer hair while, per prison regulations, all the other inmates observed had shaved or closely cropped hair reported the LA Times. At this time 18 prison employees have been taken in for questioning. 

Agents from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) alerted Mexican authorities 16 months ago that plans for Joaquin Guzman Loera (“El Chapo”) to escape were in the works by the Guzman family. When Guzman escaped was in 2001, he evaded capture for 13 years until he was found in 2014. The complexity of the tunnel has led experts to estimate that construction of the escape route must have begun immediately around the time the drug leader was caught and re imprisoned. Floors that meet cell regulations might have hindered the drug linchpin's escape, but is is uncertain as to whether thicker, reinforced floors alone could have entirely prevented the escape. 

While Mexico has 10,000 officials on “high-alert” for Guzman, they have yet to respond to US offers of assistance to help capture the escaped convict. In early 2015, the US filed an extradition request for Guzman reported Forbes, but this request was denied on the basis of national sovereignty.

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

A video released on Wednesday shows El Chapo ducking behind the wall partition, out of the view of the camera, and then returning to his bed to change his shoes. Guzman then returns to the shower, ducks, and has yet to be seen again.

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