Drug Kingpin 'El Chapo' Escapes (Again)
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
When the Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman was arrested last year, Mexican authorities rejected Washington's interest in having him extradited to this country. The boss of the Sinaloa cartel who is known as El Chapo - or Shorty - had escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001. As Patrick Radden Keefe writes for The New Yorker, Mexican officials were contemptuous of any suggestion that he might escape again. Well, despite being confined to Mexico's most secure prison, Guzman got out through a tunnel that he entered from the floor of the shower in his cell. Patrick Radden Keefe joins us now. Welcome to the program.
PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE: Thanks for having me.
SIEGEL: And first, how big was Guzman in the cross-border drug trade?
KEEFE: He was the biggest. His organization, the Sinaloa cartel, was - of the various Mexican drug cartels - the biggest smuggler of drugs, certainly across the border. It's really hard with these black-market businesses to get any kind of accurate estimate of the size, but you'll often hear it said that as much as 40 or 50 percent of all the illegal narcotics that cross the border from Mexico every year had come via this one organization.
SIEGEL: This escape involved a tunnel more than a mile long - with ventilation I've read - leading to a house near the prison. This is not a case of a prisoner with a spoon and a chisel working at it. He must've had a lot of help.
KEEFE: Yeah. I mean, my suspicion is that we will discover that he had a great deal of help, both inside and outside the prison, and also that the tunnel took a great deal of time to construct. I mean, there are some people who've suggested that they probably would've had to start building it almost as soon as he was locked up last February.
SIEGEL: How would you describe the embarrassment to Mexico's government that a criminal of the stature got out of a supposedly secure prison again?
KEEFE: I think it's intensely embarrassing. You have to think about it in the context of the great and somewhat improbable victory when they captured him February. So at that point, Guzman, who had broken out of prison once before in 2001, had been on the run for 13 years. It had taken 13 years for Mexican authorities to track this guy down. And during that time it was known that he was still running his drug business. There had been a couple of close calls in which authorities would swoop in and try and capture him. They would get a beat on his location, but he always managed to flee out a back door. So it was a tremendous success for the administration of the Mexican president, Enrique Pena Nieto, when they managed to capture him. And in light of that, it's, I think, pretty devastating to see him escape and escape in a way that seems to suggest there must have been some degree of official collusion in helping him get out.
SIEGEL: Of course, as I believe, you've written - to speak of him having been on the run for 13 years deserves some big quotation marks. He was running a huge enterprise during that entire time.
KEEFE: Right, exactly. I mean, when we talk about a prisoner on the lam, you think - I think many Americans would think about those two guys who just recently escaped from the prison in upstate New York where they're really actually just a few steps ahead of the authorities fleeing through the woods. In Chapo Guzman's case, he did continue to operate this business. He actually grew the drug business during this time. He lived in hiding, but in relative comfort.
SIEGEL: Did his incarceration put a dent in the drug trade and will his return to freedom have any effect on what's coming over the border from Mexico into the U.S.?
KEEFE: That's a really interesting question because I think there's been a tendency for both the Mexican and U.S. authorities to want to pursue what they call a decapitation strategy where you would go after the people who run these cartels. And yet, when you talk to the drug warriors about this, most of them will tell you - if they're being candid - that knocking out the head of the organization won't necessarily stop the flow of drugs. These are huge organizations with thousands of people working either directly for the cartel or as subcontractors, truck drivers, people bringing the drugs across. So I don't know that it actually put a big dent in the flow of drugs to have Guzman locked up for the brief period of time he was. Having said that, I had an interesting conversation with a senior Mexican official yesterday about this in which I was asking him about this escape which - this same guy had told me numerous times over the past couple of years would never happen. And he said that one important way to think about it was that we had all been talking about Chapo Guzman as, at this point, a somewhat symbolic figure, kind of a non-executive chairman of the Sinaloa cartel. But that in this guy's interpretation the fact that he was broken out in such a labor-intensive manner suggests that he was indispensable to the cartel, that they really needed him on the outside running the business.
SIEGEL: Patrick Radden Keefe has written about Joaquin Guzman for The New Yorker. His most recent piece online is called "El Chapo Escapes Again." Thanks a lot for talking with us.
KEEFE: Thank you.