Mexico's authorities announced this week that they have indicted almost all the members of the network behind drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán's spectacular escape from maximum-security jail in July.
Chapo, however, remains at large, with the embarrassment of his flight now compounded by reports of abuses in a recent operation that narrowly missed recapturing him in the mountain bastion of his Sinaloa cartel.
"Guzmán escaped prison, but neither he nor those who helped him will escape justice," Attorney General Arely Gómez said on Wednesday after announcing the indictment of six people she said had been key to his flight on July 11.
The six, who she did not name for legal reasons, include one of the fugitive's lawyers and one of his chief tunnel builders, as well as his brother-in-law and favorite pilot.
Gómez said that the lawyer headed the operation that culminated with Chapo slipping into a hole beneath the shower area of his own cell and only returning to the surface again about a mile away. She said the lawyer used his frequent visits to the Altiplano jail, where Guzmán had been held since his arrest in February 2014, to provide updates of advances of the tunnel escape plan and receive instructions.
The attorney general said the defendants also include the man who directed the construction of the sophisticated tunnel that was high enough for the notoriously short kingpin to stand in, as well as equipped with ventilation and electricity. Gómez said he was known to have overseen similar tunnels built to move drugs under the border with the United States.
Chapo's brother-in-law, meanwhile, is alleged to have helped organize the capo's transportation from the mouth of the tunnel to the city of Querétaro 124 miles away from the jail. He also allegedly arranged for Chapo to be flown in a light aircraft from there to the so-called Golden Triangle — a mountainous area that spans the states of Chihuahua, Durango, and his native Sinaloa than has long been a largely impenetrable bastion for his organization.
Gómez said the kingpin's pilot for the journey had also been indicted. She described him as "historic," suggesting he had been flying Chapo around for years.
Wednesday's arrests take the number of people currently charged with crimes related to Chapo's escape to 29. They include the former warden of the Altiplano prison as well as the coordinator of federal prisons who allegedly ordered and authorized unnecessary construction work in an effort to smother the noise being made by Chapo's tunnelers.
"This included waterproofing the roof of escapee's cell block in the middle of the rainy season as well as changing tiles," Gustavo Salas, the chief prosecutor for organized crime, told Radio Fórmula on Thursday. "These cosmetic projects generated banging and hammering intended to cover up the noise coming from underground."
(AP file photo)
The drive to put those who allegedly planned and executed the escape behind bars coincides with a major operation in the Golden Triangle that got close to bringing in Guzmán as well.
Last Friday the Mexican authorities confirmed press reports that special navy forces had caught up with Guzmán near the town of Tamazula in Durango earlier this month. A statement said the kingpin managed to get away, suffering injuries to a leg and his face during his flight. The statement also confirmed the participation of "international agencies," widely assumed to mean the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
The fact that the operation got so close to Guzmán within his strongest bastion — in which the rugged terrain makes access by air difficult and a surprise approach by land impossible, and where the local population has long protected him — belies those who believed the hunt for the drug lord had almost not chance of success.
"The campaign to recapture Chapo seems to be going in the right direction," security expert Alejandro Hope wrote in Mexican daily El Universal. But the expert added that every fluffed opportunity could put the pursuit back months as security around the capo tightened, including more care with communications. Intercepted calls reportedly lead to his location this time. "He is no easy prey," Hope said.
At the same time the operation to track down Chapo in the mountains also triggered an exodus of hundreds of villagers from the area who, when they got to larger towns, began telling reporters that they decided to flee when helicopters opened fire on their homes. One home in the remote community of El Verano was reportedly left with 33 bullet holes in its roof and walls after the operation.
The allegations of excessive force prompted the navy ministry to release a statement insisting that "in every operation carried out by navy personnel human rights are strictly respected."
Some observers nevertheless see evidence of a deliberate strategy aimed at pressuring villagers to leave the area in an effort to isolate Chapo. The local population has long acted as a kind of shield for Chapo and other Sinaloa cartel drug traffickers either because they see them as local heroes, or because they are frightened of what could happen to them if they are suspected of betrayal.
"Nobody is going to betray Chapo up there and the government knows it," veteran cartel watcher Ismael Bojórquez wrote in Río Doce, the investigative weekly he runs in Sinaloa. "This is bad for a government that is already so damaged in terms of human rights. It is worse for the population that is suffering the results of the government's frustration."
Meanwhile, Mexican media reported on Thursday that a judge has granted the drug lord a provisional injunction against extradition if he is recaptured. Ever since Chapo escaped one of his lawyers, Juan Pablo Badillo, has bombarded the courts with petitions to rule out possible extradition on the grounds that his client would never receive a fair trial if extradited to the US.
Follow Jo Tuckman on Twitter: @jotuckman