Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto was en route to a state visit in France when he learned that the world’s most notorious drug kingpin, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, had escaped from a high-security prison for the second time.
Guzmán’s brazen escape from Mexico’s Altiplano prison, however, reportedly held his attention only momentarily.
The Mexican leader was playing dominoes with advisers on the presidential airplane TP01 when the call came.
The scene, as described by the Mexican news magazine Reforma:
They were traveling calmly in the front part of the TP01; legs stretched out, relaxed, heading to Paris.
Suddenly, the private secretary, Jorge Corona, approached his boss with a phone. The president sat up in his seat and stopped the game. He took the phone behind a closed door. It was the secretary of the interior, Miguel Ángel Osorio, who was calling from London. Peña asked some questions before hanging up.
He had been smiling when he left the cabin. He returned to his seat with a strained face. “El Chapo escaped,” he said to his fellow players. The flight was stunned.
“How?” one asked.
Peña raised his voice: “El Chapo escaped. It looks like by tunnel. They are investigating.”
The response to Guzmán’s escape was mishandled on a number of levels. Officials at Altiplano prison (some of whom have been arrested on charges of aiding the escape) took 18 minutes to reach Guzmán’s cell after he disappeared from surveillance cameras.
- Mexico National Security Commission/Amanda Macias/Business Insider
Peña Nieto’s reaction would have been limited by his location. But, if Reforma’s account is correct, it seems the escape of the world’s most powerful drug lord was something the Mexican president was either unwilling or unprepared to face.
They all remained mute, paralyzed. Peña asked how long until arrival in Gander [in Canada]. They told him less than two hours. There were no conditions to discuss the subject on the plane.
“We are going to finish,” ordered Peña, pointing to the dominoes.
He won with fours.
The next day, in Paris, Peña Nieto sent Osorio, the interior minister, back to Mexico to manage the situation and said, “I trust that the Mexican institutions … specifically those in charge of public security, have the strength and determination to reapprehend this criminal.”
Guzmán’s escape, on a motorcycle through an air-conditioned tunnel that stretched a mile from the bottom of the shower in his cell to a partially constructed house in a nearby field, is a dark blemish on Peña Nieto’s tenure.
“They caught him without resistance and … he left prison without resistance,” said Manuel González Navarro, a professor at the National Autonomous University. “It represents a very strong blow to popular thinking, filling [people] with doubt.”
The drug kingpin, the leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, was apprehended in early 2014. (He spent 13 years on the run after escaping from prison in 2001.)
The president framed Guzmán’s capture as a victory for a security strategy focused on intelligence.
El Chapo’s arrest showed, Peña Nieto said at the time, that the government was working “to guarantee the safety and the execution of laws in our territory so we can achieve a Mexico at peace.”
To allow the Sinaloa cartel boss to escape again “would be unpardonable,” Peña Nieto said in 2014.
In the year and a half since he said that, Peña Nieto and his government have been plagued by gaffes, alleged abuses, and, at times, violent protests.
Mexico’s widespread insecurity and blatant corruption
- REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
In June 2014, 22 people were executed in Tlatlaya in central Mexico, and military personnel have since been implicated. In September, the disappearance of 43 students at a rural school in Guerrero state, a crime in which local police were reportedly involved, stunned the nation.
In January this year, 16 protesters were allegedly executed in southwest Mexico, a crime for which federal police officers have been charged. In May, Mexico saw one of the bloodiest shootouts in a decade, in what many now believe was a case of heavily armed Mexican police gunning down 42 civilians on a farm in southwestern Michoacan state.
- REUTERS/Henry Romero
Throughout this period, political candidates have been threatened and assassinated, journalists have been intimidated and killed, and desperately poor migrants have been kidnapped, abused, and slain across Mexico.
Political scandal has also marred the first three years of Peña Nieto’s six-year term.
Late last year, allegations emerged that his wife and a top adviser used ties to a contractor to secure favorable deals on homes in 2012.
(“I already know you all won’t applaud,” Peña Nieto said bitterly in February, when the press did not respond as he would’ve liked to an announcement about transparency measures.)
This summer, reports surfaced that the president’s long-standing ties to a contractor had led him to influence the awarding of government contracts.
In August, a friend of Peña Nieto’s finance minister cleared the minister, the president, and the first lady of any wrongdoing – a move that elicited outrage, but not surprise.
Despite the long list of failures under the president’s watch, the failure by Peña Nieto and his administration to contain Guzmán is perhaps the most damning.
“Inside a jail, a crime can only be the result of the government’s betrayal,” wrote Reforma columnist Jesús Silva-Herzog in the days after the escape.
“The bad news was given to the president during his flight [to Paris]. The coincidence is suggestive: His government is facing the crisis with its head in the clouds,” he added.