WASHINGTON — The Drug Enforcement Administration’s top agent hasn’t really slept since he got word Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman had sneaked out of maximum-security prison in Mexico though a mile-long tunnel that opened beneath his cell’s shower nearly a week ago.
DEA’s deputy administrator Jack Riley said Thursday that the last week has been a flurry of work speaking with his Mexican counterparts and helping direct U.S. efforts to capture one of the world’s most prolific and violent drug lords for the third time in 15 years.
“This guy caused me one of the best days and worst days of my life in a span of a year,” Riley told The Associated Press. “We are doing everything we can to track him down, much like we did a year or so ago when we hooked him.”
Guzman was arrested in February 2014, more than a decade after his last escape from a Mexican prison in 2001.
Before taking over as DEA’s operations chief in Washington last year, Riley spent four years in Chicago tracking Guzman and continuing to build a growing criminal case against the drug lord. After Guzman’s arrest in February 2014, authorities in Chicago, including Riley, called for his extradition to the United States to face trial on a litany of drug trafficking and other charges.
The Justice Department had not formally requested Guzman’s transfer before Saturday’s brazen escape, but Mexican government officials made it clear after Guzman’s arrest that he would first be tried in their country.
“That is one of the reasons we pushed for extradition,” Riley said. “We were afraid of this. Not that (Mexican authorities) weren’t capable of keeping him — but he’d escaped before.”
Guzman vanished Saturday night through a sophisticated tunnel that opened in the floor of his cell’s shower. Two Mexican lawmakers said Thursday that at least 18 minutes passed before anyone was alerted.
According to internal DEA documents obtained by the AP, U.S. drug agents learned Guzman and his associates were plotting his escape almost immediately after his arrest. The agency did not have information about the weekend escape plan, the documents show.
The warnings were passed on to Mexican authorities, according to a U.S. government official briefed on the case. The official was not authorized to discuss details of the case publicly and spoke only on the condition of anonymity.
Mexican authorities have denied they received any warning about possible escape plots.
As the work begins anew to find Guzman, Riley said he has every confidence that U.S. and Mexican officials will be able to capture him again.
“I really do think we’ve got him on the run, he’s looking over his shoulder,” Riley said. “We are going to make it as hard on him as possible.”
Mexican authorities have established checkpoints on major highways around the country, distributed 100,000 photos of Guzman to toll booths and put 10,000 agents from various components of the Mexican federal police on high alert since the escape. DEA and FBI officials have met with officials in Mexico City and Riley said he has been in near daily contact with his direct counterparts since Guzman’s latest dash from custody.
Guzman’s 2014 downfall was more than a decade in the making. First arrested in Guatemala in 1993, he spent nearly a decade in another maximum-security Mexican prison before escaping, reportedly hidden in a laundry basket.
On the run but still growing his drug smuggling empire, Guzman managed to marry a young beauty queen in a lavish celebration and in 2011 became a father again, to twin daughters. What he likely didn’t know at the time was that DEA agents in 2008 had found the first crack in the security network he had spent years building and perfecting.
A wiretap recorded the boss himself, rumored at the time to hiding anywhere from the mountains of his Pacific Coast home state or the rugged jungles of Guatemala, directly negotiating a heroin deal with Chicago twin brothers who had secretly flipped and become government witnesses.
Six years later, after a series of high-profile arrests of associates, more secret wiretaps and other covert surveillance efforts, the DEA, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Marshal Service and a highly trained and trusted unit of the Mexican Marines tracked Guzman to a series of safe houses in the Mexican city of Culiacan. After his pursuers missed him in a network of underground tunnels connecting the houses, Guzman was finally found inside a seaside condominium in the resort town of Mazatlan. His wife and young daughters were with him. Not a shot was fired.
Riley said Guzman’s use of cellphones was his undoing in 2014 and likely will be again.
“Clearly that was his Achilles’ heel the first time and I think it can be this time,” Riley said. “This time when we get him, and I tell you we are going to get him, it may have a little different outcome for him.”
Associated Press writers Michael Tarm in Chicago and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.