Mexican Gov't Reticent to Make Changes After Chapo Escape

For those who remember Colombia in the dark days of the 1990s, it's all too familiar: The world's most powerful drug lord slips out of prison, the beneficiary of his government's refusal to extradite him and its inability to hold him.

When notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar left his luxury prison near Medellin in 1992, the ensuing scandal set in motion changes: a renewal of extraditions to the U.S. and the hunting down and killing of Escobar a year later.

In Mexico, however, the weekend escape by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman appears to have the governing party consulting its old playbook of denial and finger-pointing.

Rather than address the complicity and corruption that most certainly allowed Guzman to slip from his high-security cell and out a mile-long tunnel rigged with lights and a motorcycle, Mexico's interior secretary argued late Monday that the drug lord would have escaped any maximum-security prison in the world.

The Altiplano prison "has the same certification as a lot of ones I could mention in the United States," Miguel Osorio Chong said.

For its part, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, which reclaimed power in 2012 after losing two presidential votes, cast blame on the previous administration of President Felipe Calderon for launching an aggressive and bloody war on Mexico's cartels.

"Those who started this cruel and absurd war on organized crime have no moral authority" to criticize the government over Guzman's escape, the party leadership said in a statement. "Every other government power should assume their duties, contribute to strengthening the rule of law and inform and transmit confidence to the Mexican people."

Such unquestioning stalwartness long has been characteristic of the PRI, which ruled Mexico uninterrupted for much of the 20th century.

"It just looks like we've gone back 50 years," said Mexican security expert Raul Benitez.

The escape of Guzman, leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, is a blow to the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who turned away from outright battle with the cartels and toward targeted take-downs of top leaders. Last year's capture of Guzman, who lived on the run for 13 years after a 2001 prison escape, had been a feather in the government's cap.

While U.S. authorities hoped Mexico might extradite Guzman to face drug charges there, Pena Nieto's administration scoffed at the idea, with then Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam saying it would do so only after he finished his sentence in Mexico in "300 or 400 years."

On Tuesday, few predicted Mexico's failure to hold Guzman would prompt them to begin favoring extradition.

"I don't think so," said Juan Masini, a former U.S. Justice Department official at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. "They don't want to be seen as a country that succumbs to the whim of the U.S."

The PRI's mix of defensiveness and nationalism harkens back to the 1980s, when the United States and Mexico quarreled openly over the 1985 kidnapping, torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena.

The drug lord convicted of the killing, Rafael Caro Quintero, strolled out of a Mexican prison in 2013 after an appeals court overturned his conviction on procedural grounds. Rather than order a new trial, the court allowed him to walk free, outraging the United States. He has not been seen publicly since.

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