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Mexico

'El Chapo' Moved to Less Secure Prison in Ciudad Juárez

The drug lord will stay in the northern Mexican city during his extradition processes

Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera is escorted by army soldiers to a waiting helicopter, at a federal hangar in Mexico City, photo: AP/Rebecca Blackwell
1 year ago

MEXICO CITY — Questions arose on both sides of the border about the decision to relocate convicted drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera to a region that is one of his cartel’s strongholds, and a Mexican security official acknowledged Sunday that the sudden transfer was to a less-secure prison.

The official said that in general the Cefereso No. 9 prison on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso, Texas, is not as impregnable as the maximum-security Altiplano facility near Mexico City where he had been held. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss Guzmán Loera’s case publicly and agreed to do so only if not quoted by name.

The official said, however, that Guzmán Loera is being held in a maximum-security wing where the same protocols are being enforced as in Altiplano, including 24-hour monitoring via a camera in his cell.

But Michael Vigil, the former head of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, wondered at the logic of sending Guzmán Loera to a lesser lockup in territory firmly controlled by his Sinaloa cartel underlings.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Vigil said. “He has that part of his empire, he has the infrastructure there and he has people who would assist him in terms of engineering him another escape.”

Officials have not said why they chose Cefereso No. 9 over the 19 other options in the federal penitentiary system for Guzmán Loera’s surprise, pre-dawn transfer in a high-security operation Saturday.

Some Mexican media have speculated it was a prelude to imminent extradition to the U.S., where he faces drug charges in seven jurisdictions. But authorities denied that.

The security official said Guzmán Loera is still in the middle of the extradition process. The Foreign Relations Department has the final say, and Guzmán Loera’s lawyers still have opportunities to appeal.

A lawyer for Guzmán Loera confirmed Saturday that his defense continues to fight the drug lord being sent to the U.S., and officials have said it could take up to a year to reach a final ruling.

Multiple analysts said that there was no sign of a link between the prison switch and extradition.

“In the past, when they’re going to extradite people, they just put them on a plane and they just fly them into the United States,” Vigil said. “They don’t pre-position people. … He was not pre-positioned in Juarez to get kicked across the border.

Altiplano is considered the country’s highest-security prison, and many had thought it to be unescapable. That belief was shattered in July 2015 when Guzmán Loera fled the facility through a sophisticated, mile-long tunnel that accomplices dug to the shower in his cell, complete with a motorcycle modified to run on rails laid down in the passage.

Cefereso No. 9 is just off the Pan-American highway about 14 miles (23 kilometers) south of downtown Juárez, in the middle of the barren, scorching Chihuahuan Desert. Other than a university campus about 2 miles (3 kilometers) to the east, there is hardly anything else for miles in any direction.

Gov. César Horacio Duarte Jáquez of Chihuahua state, where Juárez is, bragged about the facility’s ability to hold Guzmán Loera, saying at a news conference that the transfer posed no risk for his state and was a sign of its improvements on security matters.

“There will be no escape,” Duarte Jáquez told local media. “If he was brought here from Altiplano it’s because the security conditions are way above those of Altiplano, that’s what the federal government settled on.”

Mexican federal police guard a road leading to the Cefereso No. 9 federal prison in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Saturday, May 7, 2016. Convicted drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who twice pulled off jailbreaks and is fighting to avoid extradition to the United States, was abruptly transferred to the prison in northern Mexico near the Texas border. The Interior Department said the move was due to work being done to reinforce security at the maximum-security Altiplano lockup near Mexico City where he was being kept. (AP Photo/Raymundo Ruiz)

Mexican federal police guard a road leading to the Cefereso No. 9 federal prison in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Saturday, May 7, 2016. Photo: AP Photo/Raymundo Ruiz

Authorities said the move was due to security upgrades at Altiplano and also part of a routine policy to rotate inmates for security reasons. Analysts said officials may also have wanted to shake up his confinement to thwart any escape plans that could have been in the works.

Vigil said it would be a mistake to try to hold Guzmán Loera in the Juárez prison for long.

“If they keep him there for a prolonged period of time, the Mexican government certainly is risking that he escapes,” Vigil said. “And if he escapes, it would just completely decimate the credibility of the Mexican government.”

According to a 2015 report by the governmental National Human Rights Commission, Cefereso No. 9 got the lowest overall quality rating for any of Mexico’s 21 federal prisons at 6.63 on a scale of 0 to 10. Altiplano was the 10th best, with a rating of 7.32.

Cefereso No. 9 got low marks for guaranteeing a “dignified” stay and for handling inmates with special requirements. It got middling scores for guaranteeing prisoners’ safety and well-being, and for rehabilitation.

It was also listed as somewhat overcrowded, with 1,012 inmates living in a facility designed to hold 848. Authorities acknowledge overcrowding is a widespread problem throughout Mexico’s penitentiary system.

Overall, Cefereso No. 9 got a “yellow” evaluation for 2015 on the report’s stoplight-style rating system. That was improved from “red” in 2014, even if its numerical score was still the country’s lowest.

“Governability” was the only area where the prison received a “green,” or good, rating. Altiplano also got a “green” rating for the category.

“El Chapo” first broke out of prison in 2001 and spent more than a decade on the run, becoming one of the world’s most-wanted fugitives. He was recaptured in 2014, only to escape the following year. Mexican marines re-arrested him in the western state of Sinaloa in January, after he fled a safe house through a storm drain.

Guzmán Loera was returned to Altiplano, where officials beefed up his security regimen. He was placed under constant observation from a ceiling camera with no blind spots, and the floors of top-security cells were reinforced with metal bars and a 16-inch (40-centimeter) layer of concrete. Prison authorities also restricted his visits.

PETER ORSI

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