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Could ‘El Chapo’s’ Escape Damage U.S.-Mexico Relations?

Unanswered Questions from the Scene of El Chapo's Escape 0:58

The return of the world's most powerful drug lord to the top of his multinational cartel is only the start of the problems facing Mexico in the wake of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's prison escape.

Along with the threat of more violence, the debacle could also hurt Mexico's uneasy relationship with American law enforcement authorities, who reportedly warned that Guzman's associates began plotting to break him out of Altiplano prison soon after his February 2014 arrest.

That arrest, following years of near-misses, was hailed by officials on both sides of the border as a sign that U.S. authorities could feel comfortable sharing intelligence with their Mexican counterparts.

But the method of Guzman's Saturday night escape — through a ventilated, mile-long tunnel that connected his shower stall with an unfinished home — raises questions about the complicity of government officials.

"The U.S. has been reluctant to share classified information with Mexican law enforcement authorities for concern that the information will be shared with drug traffickers, and Mexico has come a long way in trying to allay those fears," said Jimmy Gurule, a former drug prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney's office in Los Angeles and now a University of Notre Dame law professor.

"But when you have an incident like this, clearly it is going to reinforce those concerns," he said.

Mexican drug lord 'El Chapo' makes brazen prison escape 2:23

"This doesn't mean the damage is irreparable," Gurule added. "But it's going to take some substantial time for Mexican law enforcement to gain the trust of U.S. law enforcement."

Guzman, a billionaire, protected himself and his organization largely via the power of bribes; he was notoriously influential with the Mexican ruling elite, from government to the military to the police. Mexican drug investigators, with help from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, tried many times to capture him but Guzman, who built a warren of secret tunnels under his safe houses and had escaped from a federal prison once before, always managed to slip away.

The February 2014 arrest was supposed to solve all those problems.

Almost immediately after Guzman was taken into custody, DEA agents began hearing of plots to help him escape, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. The agency notified the Mexican government, which had promised the kingpin wouldn't get away.

At the same time, federal prosecutors in several American jurisdictions were clamoring to have Guzman extradited to the United States, where he faces multiple drug trafficking indictments. Mexican authorities said it would not hand him over.

Gilbert Gonzalez, a former DEA agent who spent many years investigating Mexican cartels, said that U.S. agents are surely helping Mexican authorities' search for Guzman, and that the relationship would continue to be "functional."

There is now an added enticement for cooperation: the possibility that Mexican authorities obtained valuable intelligence in interviews with Guzman during his brief imprisonment that points to how far corruption of the government went.

"You can only imagine the names he has in his black book," Gonzalez said.

Another thing interrogators seemed to have learned is that Guzman cannot handle being behind bars, he said.

So if the hunt for Guzman culminates with a standoff, he may prefer to "go out like Pablo Escobar," and be killed rather than captured, Gonzalez said.