Sinaloa drug cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán's weekend escape from a Mexican prison is an affront to U.S. law enforcement, which has worked for years to build a case against the kingpin, a member of Texas' congressional delegation charged Sunday.
Guzmán escaped through a 1-mile tunnel that authorities said was connected to the shower facilities in his cell at Mexico’s maximum-security Altiplano prison, The Associated Press reported.
He had been there there since shortly after his arrest in February 2014 in the resort city of Mazatlán.
U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, the Democrats' ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, said Sunday that had the U.S. been able to extradite the reputed warlord, Guzmán's confinement would have been guaranteed.
“Extradition is an important weapon in the U.S.-Mexico effort against the drug cartels,” Vela said in an email.
“Our inability to get Mexico to extradite Chapo Guzmán, and indicted Tamaulipas Governors Tomas Yarrington and Eugenio Hernandez Flores is an insult to the law enforcement and prosecutorial personnel who have worked for years to build criminal cases against these drug profiteers,” he added, referring to the former lawmakers who are also sought by U.S. authorities for their alleged dealings with Mexican cartels.
“The United States needs to exercise stronger diplomatic muscle, ensure the recapture of Chapo Guzmán and see to it that these three individuals be brought to the United States at once to face the charges that have been levied against them.”
It marks the second escape for the kingpin, who fled in 2001 and was on the run until his capture last year. He was also sought by U.S. authorities and faces several charges in Texas and elsewhere across the country. He remains on the Most Wanted list for the Drug Enforcement Agency’s El Paso division.
Guzmán’s escape is likely to rile U.S. officials, who have long been leery of the Mexican criminal justice system for repeatedly failing to punish known criminals. But it’s also likely that Guzmán’s latest disappearance won’t surprise many.
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, was among the first to sound alarm bells last year when he said the day after Guzmán’s arrest that extradition to the U.S. was in the best interest of both countries.
“Chapo Guzmán has a lot of ties in Mexico, a lot of corruption. That’s how he escaped in 2001. We just want to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in February 2014.
Guzmán’s escape is also a major blow to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who was lauded last year following the drug lord’s apprehension. The Associated Press reported it was doubtful that Guzman’s tunnel, which was equipped with a ventilation system and led to a house in a construction zone, was built without authorities having any knowledge.
Before his capture, Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel wreaked havoc on the Texas-Mexico border, especially across the Rio Grande from El Paso in Ciudad Juárez. A war there between Guzmán and the homeland Juárez cartel lasted more than three years and killed thousands of people. The Sinaloa cartel was also responsible for bloodshed in Tamaulipas, when it battled the Gulf and Zetas cartel for control of the smuggling routes that extend into Texas and beyond.
Though the violence was concentrated on the Mexican side, it sparked fears of “spillover” violence and became a hot-button issue for Texas Republicans who accused the Obama administration of failing to secure the border during Mexico’s most violent period in history since its revolution in the 1910s.
The bloodshed also prompted lawmakers in Texas, specifically El Paso and Laredo, to push back against the perceptions that those cities were “war zones.”
It’s unclear how what effect, if any, Guzmán’s escape will have on the cities that border Texas in Mexico. Guzmán probably still led his organization from prison. But the weekend's news could spark unrest in smaller areas where drug routes are still up for grabs.
Oscar Hagelsieb, the assistant special agent in charge of the narcotics strike force and intelligence operations for the Department of Homeland Security, told the Tribune that the Valley of Juárez, across from rural El Paso County, was still in dispute.
“That [smuggling route into Texas is] a very lucrative plaza. They are not going to go down without a fight,” he told the Tribune in April.