WASHINGTON — 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 seaside resort town of Mazatlan, Mexico.
Immediately after Guzman's arrest, which was considered a crowning achievement of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's government in its war against drug cartels, various Guzman family members and drug-world associates were considering "potential operations to free Guzman," the documents show. The agency notified Mexican authorities about the plots.
In the documents, Guzman is identified by 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.
In March 2014 agents in Los Angeles reported a possible escape operation funded by another drug organization run under the auspices of Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel. That plot involved threatening or bribing prison officials. That July, the same investigation revealed that Guzman's son had sent a team of lawyers and military counter-intelligence personnel to design a break-out plan.
In December of the 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."
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 is offering its full support to Mexico. He's pointing out that Guzman has also been charged with serious crimes in the U.S.
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.
"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.
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.
Follow Alicia A. Caldwell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/acaldwellap