MEXICO CITY — The northern prison to which authorities suddenly transferred convicted drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is rated as the worst in Mexico’s federal penitentiary system for inmate conditions and other factors, according to the government’s own reporting.
The Cefereso No. 9 facility on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, which borders El Paso, Texas, did score well on “conditions of governability,” perhaps an indication that authorities think they can control Guzman’s environment there and limit the risk of him pulling off a third brazen jailbreak.
But Michael Vigil, the former head of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, questioned the logic of sending Guzman to a less-secure prison that is in territory firmly controlled by his Sinaloa cartel.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Vigil said Sunday. “He has that part of his empire, he has the infrastructure there and he has people who would assist him in terms of engineering him another escape.”
Some Mexican media have speculated the transfer was a prelude to imminent extradition to the U.S., where he faces drug charges in seven jurisdictions. But authorities denied that.
A Mexican security official, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the matter, said Guzman is still in the middle of the extradition process. The Foreign Relations Department has the final say, and Guzman’s lawyers still have opportunities to appeal.
A lawyer for Guzman confirmed Saturday that his defense continues to fight sending the drug lord to the U.S., and officials have said it could take up to a year to reach a final ruling.
Multiple analysts told The Associated Press that there was no sign of a link between the prison switch and extradition.
“In the past, when they’re going to extradite people, they just put them on a plane and they just fly them into the United States,” Vigil said. “They don’t pre-position people. . . . He was not pre-positioned in Juarez to get kicked across the border.
A 2015 report by the governmental National Human Rights Commission gave the Juarez prison an overall 6.63 rating on a scale of zero to 10, the lowest for any of Mexico’s 21 federal prisons. By comparison, the maximum-security Altiplano facility near Mexico City where Guzman had been confined was 10th best, with a rating of 7.32.
Altiplano is considered the country’s highest-security prison, and many had thought it to be unescapable. That belief was shattered in July 2015 when Guzman fled the facility through a sophisticated, mile-long tunnel that accomplices dug to the shower in his cell, complete with a motorcycle modified to run on rails laid down in the passage.
Cefereso No. 9 is just off the Pan-American highway about 14 miles south of downtown Juarez, in the middle of the barren, scorching Chihuahuan Desert. Other than a university campus about 2 miles to the east, there is hardly anything else for miles in any direction.
Gov. Cesar Duarte of Chihuahua state, bragged about the facility’s ability to hold Guzman, saying at a news conference that the transfer posed no risk for his state and was a sign of its improvements on security matters.
“There will be no escape,” Duarte told local media. “If he was brought here from Altiplano it’s because the security conditions are way above those of Altiplano, that’s what the federal government settled on.”
The Mexican security official who insisted on anonymity in talking about Guzman, acknowledged that general security at Cefereso No. 9 is not the best. But the official said Guzman is being held in a maximum-security wing where the same protocols are being enforced as in Altiplano, including 24-hour monitoring via a camera in his cell.
Guzman was moved in the pre-dawn hours Saturday in a surprise, high-security operation.
Authorities said the move was due to security upgrades at Altiplano and also part of a routine policy to rotate inmates for security reasons. Analysts said officials may also have wanted to shake up his confinement to thwart any escape plans that could have been in the works.
Vigil said Guzman should not be jailed in Juarez for an extended period.
“If they keep him there for a prolonged period of time, the Mexican government certainly is risking that he escapes,” Vigil said. “And if he escapes, it would just completely decimate the credibility of the Mexican government.”
According to the rights commission’s report, Cefereso No. 9 got low marks for guaranteeing a “dignified” stay and for handling inmates with special requirements. It got middling scores for guaranteeing prisoners’ safety and well-being, and for rehabilitation.
It also was listed as somewhat overcrowded, with 1,012 inmates living in a facility designed to hold 848. Authorities acknowledge overcrowding is a widespread problem throughout Mexico’s penitentiary system.
Overall, Cefereso No. 9 got a “yellow” evaluation for 2015 on the report’s stoplight-style rating system. That was improved from “red” in 2014, even if its numerical score was still the country’s lowest.
“Governability” was the only area where the prison received a “green,” or good, rating. Altiplano also got a “green” rating for governability conditions.
“El Chapo” first broke out of prison in 2001 and spent more than a decade on the run, becoming one of the world’s most-wanted fugitives. He was recaptured in 2014, only to escape the following year. Mexican marines re-arrested him in the western state of Sinaloa in January, after he fled a safe house through a storm drain.
Guzman was returned to Altiplano, where officials beefed up his security regimen. He was placed under constant observation from a ceiling camera with no blind spots, and the floors of top-security cells were reinforced with metal bars and a 16-inch layer of concrete. Prison authorities also restricted his visits.