Mexico’s hesitations over the U.S. offer to help find and capture Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman reflect years of strain between the two countries as their joint effort against the drug cartels has waned, with a drop in extraditions to the United States.
MEXICO CITY — Hours after the world’s most infamous drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, escaped Mexico’s highest security prison over the weekend, the United States offered marshals, drones, even a special task force to help find and recapture him.
But the Mexicans have kept the Americans at bay, according to Mexican and U.S. officials. They say the delay has confounded law-enforcement agencies on both sides of the border and undermined efforts to recapture Guzman, the billionaire head of the Sinaloa cartel, before his wealth and global connections help him vanish.
Mexico’s hesitations over the U.S. offer reflect years of strain between the two countries as their ambitious joint effort against the cartels has waned, with a drop in extraditions to the United States, divided priorities in Mexico and financing for shared projects in decline.
Mexico’s interior secretary, Miguel Osorio Chong, said Monday night that the two countries were cooperating. But at a news conference about the search for Guzman, who absconded through an elaborate tunnel dug 30 feet beneath his prison shower, Osorio Chong made clear that no additional U.S. assistance should be expected.
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“We are not going to do something new beyond what we have already been doing,” he said.
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 Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) investigation.
Mexican and U.S. officials said the manhunt was being shaped by some of the same struggles over urgency, control and sovereignty that led Mexico to resist extraditing Guzman to the United States after his arrest in a joint sting operation in early 2014.
“It’s frustrating,” said Carl Pike, who was the assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s Special Operations Division for the Americas until he retired in December. “It was a lot of work by a lot of really good people to put him in there, and then to just put him in a situation where he can climb in a tunnel and get away?”
Given Guzman’s use of tunnels at the border and under safe houses, Pike added: “It’s kind of like a joke. ‘Gee, a tunnel, who would have thought.’ It’s kind of a no-brainer.”
On Tuesday, it became increasingly apparent that there had been signs for months that something was brewing at the Altiplano prison where he was held.
The tunnel ended in an unfinished house in the middle of an empty field. The nearest residents said workers started building the house out of the blue and without permits about 10 months ago.
Guzman had reportedly petitioned the national human-rights commission to prevent surveillance cameras in his shower, claiming such intrusion was a violation of his rights. The opening to the tunnel was in the shower.
Guzman also had maps of the prison, Osorio Chong said.
A Twitter account that purports to belong to one of Guzman’s sons predicted his escape months ago, adding later, “Good things come to those who wait.”
As such details emerged, Mexicans expressed outrage, disbelief and demands for the punishment of top officials.
President Enrique Peña Nieto, who after Guzman’s capture last year said that losing him again would be “unforgivable,” was not home to hear the outcry. His office said he was sampling cuisine Tuesday as he continued a state visit to Paris.
On talk shows, social media and YouTube, Guzman, head of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, was being praised, admired, reviled and condemned. It seemed almost equal amounts of condemnation were hurled at the government.
Authorities acknowledge that Guzman’s security was badly bungled and that corrupt officials played a major role. The warden and two other prison officials have been fired, and 20 more are being interrogated, the government said. Osorio Chong, the nation’s top law enforcement officer, refused to resign.
Given their history of animosity, war and misunderstanding, both countries are skeptical of each other, said Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America.
“The Mexicans think we are domineering and imperialist, and we think they are corrupt,” Isacson said.
The Peña Nieto administration had put the Americans at arm’s length, questioning the right of U.S. officials to give elite Mexican security officials polygraph tests to root out corruption.
The system of cooperation improved somewhat with time, U.S. and Mexican officials said. Lists of top suspects flowed back and forth daily between DEA officials and their Mexican counterparts. U.S. drones focused on human trafficking continued to fly near the border.
But signs of Mexican weakness in the fight against the cartels continued to emerge, and many officials and experts now question how the U.S. and Mexico will move forward. Some argue that relations could improve, especially if the countries again combine forces to hunt down Guzman and build on earlier efforts to strengthen the Mexican judicial system.
U.S. officials have also hinted at progress in the search for another priority suspect, Rafael Caro Quintero. He was released unexpectedly in 2013 by a Mexican judge who ruled he had been tried in the wrong court for the murder of Enrique Camarena, known as Kiki, a DEA agent who was abducted, tortured and killed in 1985.
In the widening circle of law-enforcement agents who have tried to put Guzman out of commission, there are concerns that the failure to hold the world’s most notorious trafficker will make every case that follows more difficult.
“You have sources on the ground who are going to be reluctant to cooperate, because they are going to believe that the information they are giving is in vain,” said Arturo Fontes, a retired FBI agent who spent at least 10 years investigating Guzman. “And the people stateside are going to be reluctant because they are going to believe that the Mexicans are compromised.”
“This is going to take us back years now,” he said.