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Mexican president faces music after drug lord’s prison break

Mexico’s president faced a howling political and public relations nightmare Friday as he arrived home from an overseas trip to confront fallout from the escape from prison of the country’s most notorious drug lord.

Enrique Pena Nieto
Enrique Pena Nieto

The weekend flight of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is a stinging embarrassment for a government which had pointed to his arrest last year as its biggest victory yet in its war on drugs.

President Enrique Pena Nieto was flying to France Saturday when word broke that Guzman had escaped — for the second time in 14 years.

This time the billionaire drug lord crawled through a hole in the floor of his shower stall in a maximum security prison and made his way through an tunnel fitted with a motorcycle.

The country, weary of drug related violence, is furious and demanding measures to restore the government’s credibility.

Pena Nieto was heading to France seeking investors for a sluggish economy, and decided to go ahead with the five-day visit despite knowing a firestorm with his name all over it was brewing back home.

The problem with the escape is not so much the security issue it exposes, but the political headache it creates for the president, said Roy Campos of the polling firm consulting firm Consulta Mitofsky.

“The president is practically obligated to come out publicly and state what changes he is going to make,” said Campos.

Pena Nieto has a public event scheduled for 1830 GMT at the presidential complex known as Los Pinos. He could address the escape, which so far he has only alluded to once, on Sunday, calling it an “insult to the State.”

Guzman had been recaptured in February 2014
Guzman had been recaptured in February 2014

Guzman’s second escape from what is supposed to be the country’s most tightly guarded prison marked the start of what become a miserable week for the president, perhaps his worst since coming to power in 2012.

On Wednesday, Mexico opened up its long-closed oil industry to foreign money with an auction of offshore oil blocks, and only two of 14 on offer drew enough interest to seal a purchase.

After Guzman was captured last year, the president said famously that it would be “unforgivable” if he got away again.

But he did, with a Hollywood-worthy escape. An inside job is suspected. A huge manhunt is underway. Pena Nieto stayed in France, however. He ordered the manhunt, sent his interior minister back home, then said nothing of the escape for days.

“I don’t know if he should have come back immediately, but most Mexicans would have liked him to come home early to signal the importance of what was happening here,” said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst at a think tank called CIDE.

A poll in the newspaper Reforma said 88 percent of Mexicans believe the escape was an inside job, and 65 percent blame the authorities’ incompetence more than the sharp wits of the drug lord.

So far, the government has only fired two corrections officials and the prison’s warden, while 22 prison employees remain in custody.

Some Mexicans think the government should have agreed to a US request to extradite Guzman, on the premise that prisons there are harder to break out of. AFP

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