Mexico just sent 'El Chapo' Guzmán to its worst prison, and it's not clear what's going on

Mexico’s prison system has been called a “disaster,” and drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán just got sent to the worst lockup in the country.

Guzmán was transferred early Saturday morning to Cefereso No. 9, just outside Ciudad Juarez, which is across the border from El Paso, Texas.

A 2015 report by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission found that Cefereso No. 9 scored 6.63 out of 10, the lowest of the country’s 21 federal prisons and below the 7.32 score of 10th-ranked Altiplano prison, where Guzmán was being held before.

The prison — about 14 miles from downtown Ciudad Juarez — had a low score for handling prisoners with special requirements.

It also got middling marks for prisoner safety and well-being and for rehabilitation, according to the Associated Press. Despite those issues and being overcrowded, the prison improved from 2014.

One area where the prison performs well is in “conditions of governability,” which perhaps led to Mexican officials’ assertions that Cefereso No. 9 will hold the kingpin.

The Mexican government said Guzmán was removed from maximum-security Altiplano prison, from which he escaped in brazen fashion in July 2015 before being recaptured in January, in order to do renovations meant to improve security there, though it may have been in response to a more immediate risk.

El Chapo Mexico prisonGoogle MapsMexican prison Cefereso No. 9, seen from above, is adjacent to a stretch of the Pan-American highway, just outside Ciudad Juarez and not far from the US border.

“Moving him from one prison to another is one way of delaying any potentially successful escape plans, or they might have had some information that an escape plan had been hatched,” Alejandro Hope, the security and justice editor at El Daily Post, told The Guardian.

Hope has said in the past that Guzmán’s continued presence at Altiplano makes it more likely the conditions that allowed his escape in the past will return.

And Guzmán’s very presence in Chihuahua seems to be a matter of concern.

His Sinaloa cartel recently won a violent struggle over the trafficking corridor running through Ciudad Juarez, and while violence in the city has dropped considerably, it’s likely that the cartel still has a significant presence there.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told the AP on 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.”

Hope echoed that point, telling the AP, “The surrounding environment is risky because ‘El Chapo’ certainly has a lot of people in Ciudad Juarez, so it seems like a relatively odd choice … Probably the other alternatives were not any better, whatever their objective was.”

‘Master of tunnels’

There have also been conflicting messages about whether the transfer was a prelude to Guzmán’s likely extradition to the US.

El chapoGetty ImagesMexico’s Attorney General Arely Gomez shows a picture of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman during a press conference held at the Secretaria de Gobernacion in Mexico City, on July 13, 2015.

“Due to the proximity (to the U.S.), it makes it easier to extradite him,” a Mexican law-enforcement official told CNN about the transfer to Ciudad Juarez.

Other authorities told Reuters that the move “was not a preamble to extradition.”

Hope noted that moving Guzmán to Cefereso No. 9 to ease extradition would be strange, as it would be just as easy to fly him from Mexico City, located about 60 miles east of Altiplano prison, as it would be to fly from Juarez.

No details about an escape attempt have emerged, and the efforts of Guzmán’s legal team (which has called the transfer illegal) and past experience suggest that extradition will take more than just a few months.

It’s not yet clear what’s going on, but with “El Chapo” Guzmán — nicknamed “the master of tunnels” for his subterranean proclivities — it’s usually more than meets the eye.

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