MEXICO CITY — The Mexican government has pledged to ship Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to the United States to answer for his drug-trafficking rap sheet, but that extradition is still at least months away.
In the meantime, Guzmán finds himself in the same maximum-security prison he made a mockery of six months ago when he escaped through a tunnel. The question now is: Can Federal Social Readaptation 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 for the time being. He may not be housed on the first floor again — the perfect spot for a tunnel master.
On Sunday morning, Mexico’s national security commissioner, Renato Sales Heredia, toured Altiplano with other prison officials and said that it fully complied with international standards. His office said it had established a “rigorous scheme of supervision” that would limit Guzmán’s access to visitors. But the prison's accreditation from the American Correctional Association lapsed last year, and it has not been renewed. Mexican officials agreed to do a thorough review of staffing, procedures, and the prison’s ability to monitor high-value detainees, but it is unclear where that review stands.
And other risks remain. Private property and construction projects abut the perimeter of the prison. Guzmán’s attorneys 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,” said Alejandro Hope, a security expert and former Mexican intelligence official. “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.”
Guzmán was captured Friday in his home state of Sinaloa. Mexican authorities caught up with him there — but not before Sean Penn got to him first. The actor, working for Rolling Stone magazine, arranged to interview Guzmán 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, beginning with an early October military operation in the remote mountains of Durango state.
Penn wrote that he secured the interview after “weeks of clandestine planning” and that he changed some names. He also wrote that he agreed to submit the article for Guzmán’s approval before publication — a step that raised eyebrows in journalism circles in the United States.
Guzmán has faced charges in a number of U.S. jurisdictions of organized crime, murder and drug trafficking dating to the mid-1990s. When he was apprehended in January 2014, the United States requested his extradition, but Mexico refused. This time, Mexico has initiated the extradition process, but officials there expect it will take months to complete. Some politicians, including the prominent left-wing congressman Jesús Zambrano, have called for Guzmán to be tried and sentenced in Mexico before being sent to the United States.
A Mexican law enforcement official said the extradition process cannot be accelerated just because Guzmán is a notorious character. Mexico, the official said, must respect the laws, and it “cannot violate his right to defend himself.”
“It doesn’t depend on the Mexican government, nor on the United States government. It’s in the hands of the judicial authorities,” said Mariana Benitez, who was a deputy attorney general when Guzmán was imprisoned and is now a congresswoman with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. “We are talking, in the best of scenarios, in at least four to six months.”
Benitez said that despite Guzmán’s “enormous power” and his “networks of corruption,” the Altiplano prison can hold him this time.
“I am convinced that the security institutions have taken the necessary measures so that [his escape] doesn’t happen again,” she said.
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 fingerprint ID sensors, before reaching the wing where Guzmán was held. And the intense scrutiny of the Mexican government will make it harder for him to pull 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 in its rush to extradite, Mexico might not hold on to Guzmán long enough for him to 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.
For the year and a half he was behind bars, Guzmán lived in the 60 square feet of Cell 20, the last of 10 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 where he escaped. The 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.
But the biggest threat remains corruption. More than 10 prison guards and their superiors in the penal system were arrested following Guzmán’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.
Even before that, Guzmán 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.
Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City and Paul Farhi in Washington contributed to this report.