Drug lord Guzman’s power makes him a hard man to keep in prison, experts warn.

The last time Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman was behind bars, his home was a 5.5sq m room with a concrete slab for a bed, a cold-water sink, and a hole in the ground for a toilet, inside the most restrictive wing of what was touted as Mexico's highest-security prison.

And that is where Guzman has returned, after flouting those security measures six months ago when he escaped through a tunnel. The question now is, can Federal Social Re-adaptation Centre No. 1, otherwise known as Altiplano prison, hold him this time?

Given the police and military patrols swarming the exterior of the prison, set amid farmland west of Mexico City, it appears that Mexican authorities are taking their recaptured prisoner seriously.

And experts assume that the laxness seen before his escape in July - such as prison guards playing solitaire instead of watching their monitors - will be stiffened up for the time being. He may not be housed on the first floor again - the perfect spot for a tunnel master.


But risks remain. Private property and construction projects abut the prison. Guzman's lawyers are likely to try to delay extradition, and the billionaire drug lord still has unmatched abilities to bribe or threaten authorities into helping him escape.

"He might not escape the same way," Alejandro Hope, a security expert and former Mexican intelligence official, said.

"He might find another way of getting out of prison. But my guess is, his strategy will be to prolong his stay at Altiplano as long as he can. But the longer he stays there, the more likely it is he will find a way to escape."

Guzman was captured in his home state of Sinaloa. Mexican authorities caught up with him there - but not before the actor Sean Penn got to him first. Penn, working for Rolling Stone magazine, arranged to interview Guzman in October, in a meeting set up by Mexican actress Kate del Castillo.

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman met with US actor Sean Penn in his hideout in Mexico. Photo: Sean Penn

Mexican officials now say that they were aware of the interview and that it ultimately helped them move in on the fugitive.

Guzman has faced charges for organised crime, murder and drug trafficking in an array of US jurisdictions dating to the mid-1990s. When he was apprehended last time, the United States requested his extradition, but Mexico refused.

This time, Mexico has initiated the extradition process for Guzman, but Mexican officials expect it will take months to complete.

Several prisons in Mexico have received a stamp of approval from the American Correctional Association. Altiplano received its accreditation in 2012.

But it lapsed last year, and the Mexican Government agreed to do a thorough review of staffing, procedures and the prison's ability to monitor high-value detainees before the approval was renewed.

To a visitor, Altiplano is imposing. People must pass through a gauntlet of metal detectors, turnstiles, observation rooms and more than a dozen locked gates, some with
finger-print ID sensors, before reaching the wing where Guzman was held.

Federal Police and soldiers patrol on the perimeters of the Altiplano maximum security prison in Almoloya, west of Mexico City. Photo / AP
Federal Police and soldiers patrol on the perimeters of the Altiplano maximum security prison in Almoloya, west of Mexico City. Photo / AP

And the intense scrutiny of the Mexican Government will make it harder for him to perform any tricks. "I can assure you that for the moment we will not have a new escape, because all the attention of the Mexican Government is on that man," said Eduardo Guerrero Gutierrez, a security analyst and former intelligence official.

Guerrero worries that Mexico might not hold onto Guzman long enough, in its rush to extradite, before Guzman can provide intelligence that might help capture corrupt government officials or other drug lords.

But the biggest threat remains corruption. Several prison guards and their superiors in the penal system were arrested following Guzman's escape last year.

Video surfaced revealing that right before he fled through a hole in the floor of his shower stall, loud banging and construction noise was audible as his accomplices cut through the concrete floor.

And Guzman appears to have received special treatment. His lawyers in the past filed several judicial requests, known as "amparos", that allowed him extra visitors and delayed the legal proceedings against him.

For the year and a half he was behind bars, Guzman lived in Cell 20, the last of ten cells at the end of a dingy hallway in the wing for the country's most dangerous criminals.

There were surveillance cameras that could see everything, except the small portion shielded by a waist-high privacy wall in his shower stall, the exact spot he escaped. That hole descended 9m until it reached a 1.5km-long tunnel that ended at a cinder-block house in the cornfields south of the prison.

US cities vie for high-profile trial

Chicago and Brooklyn, New York, are leading contenders to host the first trial in the United States of Joaquin Guzman if he is extradited from Mexico, say former US law enforcement officials.

Several jurisdictions are vying for what would be one of the most high-profile US criminal trials in years.

The trial venue, which will ultimately be decided by the US Attorney-General, currently Loretta Lynch, is important because it will determine the specific charges that Guzman faces and the strength of the case against the world's top drug lord.

Mexican officials have indicated they are willing to comply with a US request for his extradition. Guzman is facing open federal indictments in seven US jurisdictions on charges ranging from money laundering to drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder.

Mexico could extradite Guzman by mid-year, sources familiar with the situation said. Mexican officials yesterday formally launched the process.

- Washington Post, Bloomberg, AP, AAP