MEXICO CITY, Mexico (KTRK) -- U.S. drug authorities knew Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman and his associates had developed several escape plans starting almost immediately after his arrest last year, according to internal Drug Enforcement Administration documents obtained by The Associated Press.
The internal DEA documents reveal that drug agents first got information on escape plans in March 2014, about a month after Guzman was captured in the Mexican seaside resort town of Mazatlan. Various Guzman family members and drug-world associates were considering "potential operations to free Guzman," the documents show.
That Guzman began plotting to break out shortly after his arrest should have come as little surprise to Mexican authorities: The DEA had alerted them about the plans. Mexican federal government officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the earlier escape schemes.
Since the 1990s his violent and powerful cartel has been known for digging sophisticated smuggling tunnels under the U.S. border with Mexico. Guzman was first arrested in 1993 but escaped from one of Mexico's top-security prisons, in Jalisco, in January 2001, allegedly by hiding in a laundry basket. He evaded capture in early February 2014 through an elaborate network of tunnels that connected multiple safe houses in Culiacan, in his home state of Sinaloa, and was arrested again a month later.
"There's some irony that the master of tunnels does it through a tunnel," said Jim Dinkins, the former head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations Unit. "It's really ingenious."
A few years ago, his cartel thugs built a tunnel to free 160 cartel members from a prison. We were the only station allowed to crawl through the tight space. It's so narrow, claustrophobic and long.
But El Chapo's escape tunnel was very different. It's 5 feet high 4 feet wide, ventilated, lighted and built for a drug lord.
Dinkins said the sophisticated tunnel described by Mexican authorities would usually take about a year and half to two years to complete, suggesting it was started almost immediately after Guzman's arrest.
"What probably worked well for them was all the construction around the facility," Dinkins said. "It's the removal of dirt and debris that can cause attention."
The DEA documents obtained by the AP do not include details of how the previous escape plots would be carried out. In them, Guzman is identified as Guzman-Loera.
DEA agents did not have information about Saturday night's plan, when Guzman escaped through an underground tunnel in his prison cell's shower area, allegedly built without the detection of authorities. It allowed Guzman to do what Mexican officials promised would never happen after his re-capture last year - slip out of one of the country's most secure penitentiaries for the second time.
A widespread manhunt that included highway checkpoints, stepped up border security and closure of an international airport failed to turn up any trace of Guzman by Monday, more than 24 hours after he got away.
The White House said Monday U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke with Mexico's attorney general the day after the escape was discovered. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. government has offered its full support to Mexico. He pointed out that Guzman has also been charged with serious crimes in the U.S.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Guzman's "swift recapture by Mexican authorities is a priority for both Mexican and US governments.
The documents revealed that in March 2014 agents in Los Angeles reported a possible escape operation funded by Rafael Caro-Quintero, who helped orchestrate the 1985 kidnapping and murder of DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena. That plot involved threatening or bribing prison officials. The same investigation revealed four months later that Guzman's son had sent a team of lawyers and military counter-intelligence personnel to design a break-out plan.
In December of that year, agents in the DEA's Houston Field Division reported that a Mexican army general stated "that a deal was in place to release both Guzman-Loera and imprisoned Los Zetas Cartel leader Miguel Angel 'Z-40' Tevino-Morales."
Widely considered the world's richest and most powerful drug trafficker before his capture last year, Guzman slipped down a shaft from his prison cell's shower area late Saturday and disappeared into a sophisticated mile-long (1.5 kilometer-long) tunnel with ventilation, lighting and a motorcycle apparently used to move dirt.
Guzman's arrest in 2014 was considered a crowning achievement of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's government in its war against drug cartels.
"All the accolades that Mexico has received in their counterdrug efforts will be erased by this one event" if Guzman is not recaptured, said Michael S. Vigil, a retired U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief of international operations.
Along with the 2014 escape plans, the DEA documents reveal that Guzman was still directing facets of his drug empire.
"Despite being imprisoned in a 'high security' facility, DEA reporting further indicates Guzman-Loera was able to provide direction to his son and other cartel members via the attorneys who visited (him) in prison and possibly through the use of a cellphone provided...by corrupt prison guards," the documents stated.
Following Guzman's capture, according to the documents, his son Ivan Guzman-Salazar became "the de facto leader of the Guzman branch of the Sinaloa Cartel." Guzman's "right-hand man, Damaso Lopez-Nunez" took over one of the four major trafficking organizations that operated under the auspices of the larger Sinaloa Cartel.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
It is "premature to accurately predict" what will now happen to the power structure of the organization, but Guzman's escape likely "will affect current leadership," according to the documents.
Escape by top drug lord a strong blow to Mexico's government
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