MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was smiling. “This has made me very happy,” he told me. It was late February 2014, and Peña Nieto had every reason to be pleased. After all, Mexican navy commandos had just caught the world’s most wanted drug trafficker, Joaquín “El Chapo” Gumzán, after almost a decade and a half on the lam. Now, the infamous “Chapo” (Shorty) was behind bars, imprisoned in Mexico’s Altiplano maximum-security federal prison, no less. Yes: Peña Nieto had every reason to smile.
Univision news, where I am a correspondent and anchor, had booked the interview weeks before Guzman’s capture, after Peña Nieto landed on the cover of Time magazine under the banner “Saving Mexico.” As luck would have it, we met less than 100 hours after the “arrest of the century.”
Far from the norm, Enrique Peña Nieto seemed eager to talk. I asked him how he had found out that Guzmán had been captured.
Framed by a Mexican flag and looking dapper in a navy suit, Peña Nieto shuffled a little bit in front of the camera. And then he began recollecting.
“I was wearing jogging clothes because I was about to go for a run. But then the news came and altered my morning’s plans,” he said, laughing. “I knew we had come close to catching him before. We had found people closely associated with this criminal. We had found his hiding place as well. We just didn’t know when it was going to happen and so it was particularly rewarding to wake up so early to such happy, satisfying news.”
The president paused a bit, taking the moment in.
I asked him about the possibility of extraditing Guzman to the United States, where he would face a long list of charges and, quite probably, years of uncomfortable incarceration: no wine, women, or relaxing quarters, such as Guzman famously enjoyed during his stint at Puente Grande, the prison he had escaped from in a laundry cart in 2001.
The question made Peña Nieto slightly uncomfortable. Like others within his administration, the president didn’t like to the idea of handing Guzmán over to the Americans. Peña Nieto’s attorney general, Jesús Murillo Karam, would later say, with classic nationalistic arrogance, that Chapo might end up in the United States “after he has served 300 years in Mexico.”
The president struck a similar, if slightly more diplomatic, chord. “This criminal has to face Mexican justice,” Peña Nieto told me, jaw clenched: “He has to face the process that’s already in place here. Of course, this doesn’t mean that he could eventually, at some later time yet to be decided, be extradited. But for now, he has to stay here and face our system of justice.”
In other words, Chapo was Peña Nieto’s prize and he intended to keep him.
I then asked a question that would come back to haunt the president just a year and a half later.
As luck would have it, a poll had been published just a few hours after Guzman’s capture, and almost 70 percent of those polled said they thought Guzmán would escape again, as he had done in 2001.
I ran the numbers by Peña Nieto and asked him if he would promise that, indeed, Guzman wouldn’t break out of jail again.
Peña Nieto didn’t hesitate. “It is the duty of the Mexican government, especially after what happened in the past,” he said, emphatically: “Allowing something like that to happen is truly regrettable, it’s unforgivable.”
“So it’s a pledge?” I insisted.
“Look,” he said, “I talk to the Interior Minister every day and ask him if we’re watching [Guzmán] closely, if we’re sure he’s being watched closely. It is the Mexican government’s responsibility to make sure that what happened a few years ago never, ever happens again,” he concluded, as if describing the impossible.
But, of course, it did happen again, it has happened again. Just 16 months after that conversation, Joaquín Guzmán escaped through an impossibly long and sophisticated tunnel dug right under the Altiplano prison, Mexico’s equivalent to America’s supermax penitentiary in Florence, Colorado. The scale of the project is beyond fiction. That no one knew about it is also beyond belief: scaffolding, lighting, oxygen tanks…even a motorcycle mounted on rails to expedite el Chapo’s run to freedom! Guzman, needless, to say, ain’t no Andy Dufresne. He emerged clean as a whistle, laughing all the way to God knows where.
The daring escape surprised Enrique Peña Nieto—and most of his cabinet— as they were en route to France, for what was to be a glamorous state visit. The president didn’t fly back, but Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, the man Peña Nieto said he called “every day” to check up on “El Chapo,” jumped on the first plane to Mexico City. A few hours after touchdown, he held a news conference in which he described, in painful detail, Guzman’s meticulous dismantling of his captivity—and of the Mexican government’s credibility. Still, Osorio said, he would not resign.
Osorio’s fate now rests in the hands of Enrique Peña Nieto. Osorio’s boss now has to decide what the word “unforgivable” really means to him.