Mexican president faces music after drug lord's prison break

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  • Enrique Peña Nieto
    Enrique Peña Nieto
    57th President of Mexico

Mexico City (AFP) - Mexico's president faced a public relations nightmare Friday as he confronted fallout from the escape of a notorious drug lord, but said he was "fully confident" the kingpin would be recaptured.

The weekend flight of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the country's most notorious capo, is a stinging embarrassment for a government that had pointed to his arrest last year as its biggest victory yet in the war on drugs.

As President Enrique Pena Nieto returned from France, seven prison officials from the jail where Guzman escaped were charged over the affair and taken to a federal detention center.

Pena Nieto had been flying to France Saturday when word broke that Guzman had escaped -- for the second time in 14 years.

Rather than return home, he went ahead with the five-day visit, knowing a firestorm with his name all over it was brewing back home.

Pena Nieto addressed the debacle from his presidential complex, acknowledging that the episode had outraged the Mexican people.

Guzman's escape has "caused frustration and fury across broad sectors of society," he said.

"I am sure and I am fully confident that, with the valor, courage and determination of our armed forces and federal security forces... we will again recapture him," Pena Nieto said during the speech.

The Mexican president spoke to the public after a meeting with his security cabinet and prosecutor general on the progress of a manhunt for Guzman and investigation into his escape.

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

Pena Nieto took no questions, nor did he dismiss his Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, as many have called for.

- Prison officials charged -

Meanwhile, the seven prison officials who have been charged in the case were "driven to a federal detention center," a source told AFP.

Prosecutors have held 22 prison officials, including the facility's director, for questioning since Sunday, but it was unknown whether the director was among those charged.

It took 18 minutes for guards at the Altiplano prison some 90 kilometers (55 miles) west of Mexico City, to go into Guzman's cell after they noticed that he vanished from it, Osorio Chong said Thursday.

Closed-circuit camera footage released by the government this week showed that Guzman paced in his cell before bending down behind a short partition wall in the shower, then disappearing.

Out of view, the billionaire drug lord crawled through a hole in the floor and made his way through a tunnel fitted with a motorcycle.

- 'Unforgivable' -

Guzman's second escape from what is supposed to be the country's most tightly guarded prison marked the start of 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 that has resulted in a huge manhunt.

"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 the CIDE think tank.

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

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

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