MEXICO CITY (AP) — For those who remember Colombia in the dark days of the 1990s, it’s all too familiar: The world’s most powerful drug lord slips out of prison, the beneficiary of his government’s refusal to extradite him and its inability to hold him.
When notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar left his luxury prison near Medellin in 1992, the ensuing scandal set in motion changes: a renewal of extraditions to the U.S. and the hunting down and killing of Escobar a year later.
In Mexico, however, the weekend escape by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman appears to have the governing party consulting its old playbook of denial and finger-pointing.
Rather than address the complicity and corruption that most certainly allowed Guzman to slip from his high-security cell and out a mile-long tunnel rigged with lights and a motorcycle, Mexico’s interior secretary argued late Monday that the drug lord would have escaped any maximum-security prison in the world.
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The Altiplano prison “has the same certification as a lot of ones I could mention in the United States,” Miguel Osorio Chong said.
For its part, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, which reclaimed power in 2012 after losing two presidential votes, cast blame on the previous administration of President Felipe Calderon for launching an aggressive and bloody war on Mexico’s cartels.
“Those who started this cruel and absurd war on organized crime have no moral authority” to criticize the government over Guzman’s escape, the party leadership said in a statement. “Every other government power should assume their duties, contribute to strengthening the rule of law and inform and transmit confidence to the Mexican people.”
Such unquestioning stalwartness long has been characteristic of the PRI, which ruled Mexico uninterrupted for much of the 20th century.
“It just looks like we’ve gone back 50 years,” said Mexican security expert Raul Benitez.
The escape of Guzman, leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, is a blow to the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who turned away from outright battle with the cartels and toward targeted take-downs of top leaders. Last year’s capture of Guzman, who lived on the run for 13 years after a 2001 prison escape, had been a feather in the government’s cap.
While U.S. authorities hoped Mexico might extradite Guzman to face drug charges there, Pena Nieto’s administration scoffed at the idea, with then Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam saying it would do so only after he finished his sentence in Mexico in “300 or 400 years.”
On Tuesday, few predicted Mexico’s failure to hold Guzman would prompt them to begin favoring extradition.
“I don’t think so,” said Juan Masini, a former U.S. Justice Department official at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. “They don’t want to be seen as a country that succumbs to the whim of the U.S.”
The PRI’s mix of defensiveness and nationalism harkens back to the 1980s, when the United States and Mexico quarreled openly over the 1985 kidnapping, torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena.
The drug lord convicted of the killing, Rafael Caro Quintero, strolled out of a Mexican prison in 2013 after an appeals court overturned his conviction on procedural grounds. Rather than order a new trial, the court allowed him to walk free, outraging the United States. He has not been seen publicly since.
Extraditions have fallen dramatically since 2012, the final year of Calderon’s term, when Mexico sent 115 people to the U.S., according to a May report from the Congressional Research Service. Last year, the number was 66. None of the five top capos arrested under Pena Nieto has been sent out of Mexico.
“This is a holdover from the ‘revolutionary nationalism’ of the 20th century,” Benitez said. “The PRI is a nationalist party, and they were trying to make a policy change from Felipe Calderon … whom they accused of having sold law enforcement to the United States.”
Pena Nieto ended Calderon’s practice of allowing U.S. agencies to vet Mexican law enforcement officials, and he prohibited direct intelligence-sharing between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement agencies, as Calderon allowed. Under Pena Nieto, all information must go through a centralized office in Osorio Chong’s department.
The United States has offered to help Mexico recapture Guzman, but Osorio Chong struck a defensive tone Tuesday, saying, “I could talk about some prisons in the United States and Europe that became legendary because criminals could stage incredible escapes from them.”
The U.S. alerted Mexican authorities 16 months ago that Guzman’s associates and family members were making plans to break him out of prison, according to a U.S. official who was briefed on the DEA investigation. The official was not authorized to disclose the details and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
Osorio Chong, however, denied Monday night that authorities in Mexico were ever informed of potential escapes.
The Mexican government announced it is offering a reward of $3.8 million (60 million pesos) for Guzman’s recapture. Investigators with the government’s organized crime unit have questioned 49 people, including 32 prison employees. An Interpol alert for Guzman has been sent to 10 countries.
The government said it has fired the director of the Altiplano prison and two other prison officials. But there was no indication higher-level officials would lose their jobs or go to jail.
The PRI has a reputation for protecting its own. Scandals such as the disappearance of 43 college students last fall, allegedly at the hands of corrupt police and municipal officials, have not caused Pena Nieto to fire a single Cabinet minister so far. Even Murillo Karam, who was lambasted over his handling of the students’ disappearance and who declared last year the chance of Guzman escaping a second time “does not exist,” was allowed to stay in the Cabinet, albeit in a lower-profile role after stepping down as attorney general in February.
“These are not moments to resign,” Osorio Chong said. “They are (moments) to face up to things. … Must changes be made? The immediate answer is, yes.”