CHICAGO— Reactions in the United States to the escape from Mexican prison of a reputed drug lord ranged from disbelief to outrage, with some observers saying it dramatically illustrated the need for captured cartel kingpins to be promptly extradited to the U.S.
A former administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency said he was dismayed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s weekend escape — apparently through a mile-long tunnel — from the Altiplano prison, 55 miles west of Mexico City.
“It is a shock that the most dangerous cartel leader in the world has escaped,” Peter Bensinger said Sunday. “He ought to have been housed in an American prison.”
The Chicago Crime Commission, an influential crime-fighting group, said the prison break meant Guzman will regain his title as Public Enemy No. 1 in Chicago, where his Sinaloa cartel has long dominated the cocaine and heroin trade.
“It’s clear that Mexican prisons are not equipped to hold Guzman,” said John Pastuovic. a spokesman for the non-governmental body. “This would not have occurred if he had been in an American prison.”
When the group attached the Public Enemy label to Guzman a year before his capture, it was the first time it had been used since it was applied in 1930 to Prohibition-era gangster Al Capone. The Chicago Crime Commission planned to formally restore the title to Guzman this week.
Several U.S. attorneys’ offices have indicted Guzman on federal trafficking charges, including in Chicago, where more than a dozen Guzman lieutenants have been successfully prosecuted and imprisoned. The U.S. had said after Guzman’s 2014 capture that it would file an extradition request, though it’s unclear if that already happened.
For its part, Mexico’s government at the time denied the need to extradite Guzman even as many expressed fears he would inevitably escape. He had escaped before, in 2001, while serving a 20-year sentence in another maximum-security prison in Mexico.
The official U.S. reaction was measured. A statement Sunday from the office of Attorney General Lynch, said, “We share the government of Mexico’s concern regarding the escape” and that the U.S. government was ready “to provide any assistance that may help support his swift recapture.”
But Bensinger, the former DEA head, said he was sure U.S. authorities would have been quick to express their outrage behind the scenes to their Mexican counterparts.
“They will have made their anger clear,” he said. “… The escape should be addressed at the highest levels of both governments — at the presidential level.”
At least observers weren’t surprised by Guzman’s escape given Mexican prisons’ reputation, including Gal Pissetzky, a defense attorney who has represented suspected drug trafficker in U.S. courts nationwide.
“I’m surprised he stayed locked up in there as long as he did,” Pissetzky said.