Mexico beefs up prison to deter another Guzman escape


Mexico City (AFP)

A military tank is stationed outside Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's prison. Metal rods were installed under a cell floor to prevent another tunnel dig.

Authorities have taken extraordinary steps to prevent Guzman from escaping from the Altiplano prison for a second time while they seek to extradite him to the United States.

Guzman was returned to the prison hours after he was recaptured in a deadly marine raid in his home state of Sinaloa on Friday.

It had taken him just 17 months to break out of the penitentiary after his previous arrest in February 2014.

Just 90 kilometers (55 miles) west of Mexico City, Altiplano was considered the most impenetrable prison in the country until Guzman crawled down a hole in his cell's shower and escaped through a 1.5-kilometer tunnel on July 11.

Shortly after the jailbreak, authorities arrested 13 prison officials, including the director and the head of the country's penitentiary system.

Over the past six months, improvements were made to the security filters, the surveillance cameras and the monitoring centers, the National Security Commission said in a statement.

Pictures in El Universal newspaper show thick metal rods, placed centimeters (inches) apart under the floor of a cell.

"Everything has been done to avoid another escape," a federal official told AFP.

- 'World is watching' -

The US government called on Mexico to make sure Guzman remains in prison this time.

"I think it's safe to assume that they understand that the world is watching how this case moves forward and that this individual needs to stay behind bars," said US State Department spokesman John Kirby.

Guzman's escape humiliated President Enrique Pena Nieto's administration, which had balked at extraditing him even though the kingpin had already fled from another prison in 2001.

But the government had to "send the message that this criminal had to return to the prison he escaped from" to show that it "can hold the most wanted man in the world," said Gerardo Rodriguez, national security expert at the University of the Americas.

The risk, however, is that the longer Guzman stays in prison in Mexico, the higher the risk that he tries to bribe or threaten judges and federal officials, Rodriguez said.

For security expert Raul Benitez Manaut, another concern is that Guzman could be killed in prison "over fears that if he is extradited, he'll talk and compromise" corrupt politicians.

The Altiplano prison was built between 1988 and 1990 with one-meter (three-foot) thick walls, restricted air space and underground sensors, among other security measures.

- Great escape -

Guzman was placed in cell number 20 of a section reserved for Mexico's most notorious criminals, people like drug capo Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez, who was extradited to the United States last year.

A surveillance camera was pointed at the entrance of Guzman's cell and another was inside. The night of his escape, the camera showed him disappearing behind his shower's wall.

It took almost 40 minutes for the guards to enter the empty cell.

Police detained over the security lapse described other failures the night of the infamous escape in court documents.

Some were distracted when they had to care for another drug lord who fell ill minutes before Guzman vanished.

A portly guard got stuck in Guzman's tight escape hole while trying to chase him down. Nobody knew who was in charge of activating the alarm.

Analysts say the penitentiary system lacks professionalism and training while salaries remain low.

"They're mistreated," Rodriguez said. "They're seen as the ugly duckling" of the national security system.