Federal law enforcement agencies are offering drone technology and U.S. agents to assist in the hunt for escaped drug cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, but so far the Mexican government has rebuffed the offers and appears to be hoping it can capture the fugitive on its own, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
"Of course we're helping. We do that every day in regard to our overall efforts," said one American law enforcement official, speaking anonymously because of the ongoing investigation. "It would be hard for our guys to be working down there, doing what we normally do, collecting information and developing leads, and stuff that comes over wiretaps, and not be passing it along."
But U.S. officials are perplexed and increasingly frustrated by what has happened in Mexico. On Saturday night, Guzman vanished down a tunnel through the shower floor in his prison cell, and authorities believe he most likely has returned to the rugged Sinaloa mountains, where for years he ruled a worldwide drug operation estimated to bring in $30 billion a year in the U.S. alone.
His escape marked the second time he has broken out of a Mexican prison. It is also the second time the U.S. has offered to help in his capture, providing assistance in 2014 when he was apprehended in Mexico.
One senior Drug Enforcement Administration official said Wednesday that officials from the two countries talked on Sunday, within 24 hours of the escape. "They pledged their continued well-established cooperation focusing on his capture," the DEA official said.
On Monday, the source said, Mexican and U.S. officials met privately in Mexico City and agreed to coordinate efforts. That was followed by a high-level meeting on Tuesday between U.S. Ambassador to Mexico E. Anthony Wayne and Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, Mexico's interior minister. The source said the meeting was "to review bilateral cooperation regarding committing all available resources to recapture him."
The U.S. official added, "Everybody is united and on board on this moving forward."
But after those private meetings, Osorio Chong announced publicly that no additional U.S. aid was needed at this time. "We are not going to do something new beyond what we have already been doing," he said.
Authorities in the U.S. said that so far they have been turned away from having a large, public role in the manhunt, but are offering surveillance and other technological assistance to the Mexican army.
"We may not be out there in the field with them, putting up roadblocks and running surveillance," said Michael S. Vigil, a former longtime special agent for the DEA who supervised Mexico and Latin America operations. "But at the very minimum we are providing as much intelligence help as possible. I've never seen a situation where they have not accepted our assistance."
But, he added, "it should be their show. They are a sovereign country."
Vigil and other U.S. sources said their best guess was that Guzman has returned to his Sinaloa mountain compound, where he can resume running his drug operations.
"That's his stronghold, that is the source of his power," Vigil said. "And he's protected by the local villagers there. Nothing moves unless he knows it first."
They said other cartels have been splintered by escalating violence in Mexico, and Guzman will probably want to regain control of his organization. But because there now is an escape bounty on his head as well, he may start delegating some of his authority to others, for instance having his wife pass along his orders to underlings.
U.S. officials were also disturbed by the video of Guzman's cell in the maximum security Altiplano prison. It shows him simply walking behind the shower wall, from where he disappeared through the floor. "Someone should have realized that was a blind spot for the camera," said one official. "And guards should have coming running in right there and then."
Sources said the U.S. remains interested in having Guzman extradited to this country to face federal prosecution in a half-dozen states, including California, Illinois, Texas and New York. But U.S. authorities know that before Mexico would ever agree to turn him over, assuming he is recaptured, it would be only if the U.S. promised not to try him in a potential death penalty case. Mexico does not have the death penalty.
That stipulation has been an obstacle before. Most other cartel leaders prosecuted in this country have been taken to federal court in San Diego, where they have usually entered guilty pleas in return for life sentences with no parole.
But first Guzman must be found, and U.S. officials worry that the hunt could extend for years if the Mexican government does not accept a large boost from the United States. "The truth is," said one U.S. source, "we really drive operations in Mexico. We have better resources and intelligence."
On Twitter: @RickSerranoLAT