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Drug Lord Escapes; Terror Plot Thwarted; Obama Commutes Sentences; Iran Nuclear Talks. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired July 13, 2015 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:02] PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Pamela Brown, in for Brooke Baldwin today.

And as we come to you live, one of the most violent criminals in the world, a man once compared to Osama bin Laden, is on the run right now. As we speak, a massive manhunt going on for Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the notorious drug kingpin and head of the violent Sinaloa cartel has escaped from a Mexican prison for the second time. Mexican officials say many the man whose nickname translates to "shorty," walks into a prison shower and wasn't seen again, squeezing himself through this 20 by 20 inch hole and emerging in a mile long tunnel.

But this was no sewage system. This was a fully lit, air conditioned escape route. Even equipped with a track for a motorcycle on rails. The sole purpose of this tunnel, to get El Chapo out.

I want to bring in CNN's Polo Sandoval, who is right near that prison in Mexico.

So, Polo, of course this raises the question, did he have help from the inside? Are prison officials being questioned about this?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Pamela, we know that at least 18 of these prison officials are currently in Mexico City, which is about an hour's drive east of where we are, just outside of Deluca, Mexico. And I can tell you that investigators are very eager to find out if they possibly played a role in this escape, because you also have to think about just the tremendous effort that was in play here leading up to the weekend escape. We do know that that very sophisticated tunnel, Pamela, from the inside of the prison facility you see behind me stretching out about a mile towards an unfinished, very simple cinder block home, was very sophisticated. So as a result, they do have some serious questions here, investigators do, as to really who may have played a role here.

I can tell you, if you look behind me, that's an actual construction zone. So there is some - there's a possible theory here that's in the - that's in play that some of these co-accomplices, so to speak, were basically trying to hide in plain sight. While we're continuing to see some of these actually legitimate crews working on this ongoing project. Of course there is no telling if these other individuals were actually trucking some of the dirt that was removed to create that tunnel right in plain sight, right in front of federal police. So right now the priority is not only to find out exactly how he was able to execute such a daring, such an elaborate escape, but also exactly where this very dangerous individual is. As you mentioned there, while he is somewhat short in stature, he still remains a towering figure in the cartel criminal underworld.


BROWN: And a very dangerous figure. And as you said, that manhunt underway right now. Polo Sandoval, thank you so much.

And joining me now to discusses this, Don Winslow, author of "The Cartels."

So, Don, I was reading this op-ed that you wrote and, as we know, El Chapo had escaped from a maximum security prison in Mexico before, concealing himself in a laundry basket. He was recaptured last year in a firefight and then locked up in that prison that was supposed to be immune to bribes and an apparently did little to accommodate the usually powerful cartel inmate. So, first if you would, sort of set the stage for us. In your view, what was life like in prison for him? Do you think it was different from the first time when as you said in your op-ed, it was more like a four star hotel?

DON WINSLOW, AUTHOR, "THE CARTELS": No, I very much doubt it was any different at all. You know, this is an absolutely unprecedented event. You have a man, as you alluded to, the second most wanted man after Osama bin Laden, who escapes not once but twice from a so-called maximum security prison. He ran the prison the first time. There is little room for doubt that he probably ran this this time. You are talking about a very cunning, powerful, ruthless, multibillionaire businessman with the power and the intimidation and the money to buy his way out of prison.

BROWN: And I want to read what you had written in your op-ed, because I find - I found it really interesting. You say that, "if this departure was like the last one, El Chapo didn't escape, he checked out of a hotel and paid the bill with bribery, intimidation and blackmail." So essentially what you're alluding to here is that you don't necessarily buy this idea that he escaped through that tunnel. I mean you actually think he could have just walked out the front door, right?

WINSLOW: I think that's a possibility. Look, he - he might have gone out of this tunnel. I think it rather unlikely, if it's like the laundry cart story, that proved to be false years ago. But look what we're being asked to believe, whether he went out this tunnel or not, that somebody dug a mile long tunnel with air conditioning, with ventilation, tracks, under a maximum security prison and nobody heard anything, nobody saw anything? Pamela, if something dug a big tunnel under your house, I'll bet you the neighbors might have something to say about it.

BROWN: Right. It just makes you wonder, this is someone who's a multibillionaire and, you know, prison officials in Mexico, they don't make a lot of money and corruption is rampant, as we've talked about. We know the U.S. was trying to extradite him after he was caught in 2014. The U.S. helped find him and capture him. Why was the U.S. so desperate to get him on U.S. soil and why did he so desperately not want to be extradited to the U.S.?

[14:05:24] WINSLOW: Sure. What these drug lords fear more than anything else is extradition to the United States for two reasons. One, they go to a genuine super max prison where they can't control their organizations from the inside. And, two, they're not going to escape. You know, it's bizarre, it's right out of the pages of this book I just did, "The Cartel." I describe, you know, the escape and the living conditions and why they don't want to be extradited in that book. And now we have this news.

BROWN: So if he's caught again, which of course that is the hope, do you think the U.S. will get him this time around?

WINSLOW: I doubt it. Listen, the corruption is not just of prison guards. The corruption goes wide and it goes deep. Understand that these prison guards might not have had a choice. El Chapo Guzman has the power to reach out to kill them, to kill their families. So it's not, take the money or don't take the money. It's take the money or we kill you. On a higher level of corruption, he's used his connections, his power, his influence and I think blackmail to block or, you know, delay as long as you can, extradition to the United States.

BROWN: Don Winslow, really interesting to hear your perspective. We'll see what happens next in this. Thank you so much.

WINSLOW: Thank you.

BROWN: And up next, right here in NEWSROOM, breaking news out of the White House. President Obama commuting the sentences of nearly 50 drug offenders in prisons across America. Hear why.

Plus, the nuclear talks between Iran and the west hit a major snag after indications that a deal was close. Hear what the big disagreement is all about and why a deleted tweet is involved.

And he's one of biggest heroes in American literature, but a new book portrays Atticus Finch as a racist. We have the inside story behind this stunning twist.


[14:11:20] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BROWN: Breaking news just in to CNN. Word that the U.S. has disrupted a terror plot in the name of ISIS and an American at the center of it. Let's go straight to Evan Perez, who has been reading through the complaint.

What can you tell us, Evan?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Pamela, this is a - this is one complaint from the Justice Department that underscores what all those warnings we were hearing before July 4th weekend about the concern that there were people here in this country who might be looking to carry out terrorist attacks here. And you and I had talked to many people who were talking about those issues. Alexander Chicolo (ph) is the name of this defendant. He is 23 years old. He was arrested in Massachusetts. And according to the complaint from the Justice Department, he had plans to carry out an attack in a crowd place. Again, he was intending to not only attack people with firearms, he took delivery of four firearms on July 4th from someone who was cooperating with the FBI. But when the FBI searched his home, they also found that he had improvised devices, bombs that he was making in his apartment. And those were intended to be set off in large crowds, Pamela. According to the affidavit from the FBI, he said that these Molotov cocktails that he was constructing also contained some kind of Styrofoam that was soaking in motor oil because that would allow for the device, when the explosion happened, for it to stick to people's skin and make it harder for firefighters to put out the fire.

This is something we're still going through the complaint from the Justice Department and we'll be able to provide a little bit more detail later on. But this, again, underscores what all those warnings we were hearing before Fourth of July about these plots that the FBI was concerned about, again, tied to the fourth of July holiday.

BROWN: Absolutely, and we know he was arrested on the Fourth of July and the documents have been sealed up until now. Makes you wonder if this is one of the plots that the FBI director, James Comey, eluded to that the FBI thwarted.

All right, Evan, stick around because there is another big topic that we're discussing today, and, of course, that is what the White House announced, that the punishment didn't fit the crime for 46 nonviolence drug offenders and now the president is commuting their sentences. And he gave more reasons why in a video posted to the White House website.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years. Fourteen of them had been sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses. So their punishments didn't fit the crime. And if they had been sentenced under today's laws, nearly all of them would have already served their time.


BROWN: So when you compare and consider all types of presidential actions, pardons, clemencies and commutations, here's how Obama compares. Let's take a look. He has issued 153. His predecessor, George W. Bush, issued 200. Bill Clinton granted the most of the four at 457. And George H.W. Bush gave just 77.

So I'm going to turn now to CNN's Evan Perez again, and former Obama administration official Van Jones.

So, Evan, if you would, just set the stage for us. Tell us about the people who will be released. And they're all leaving prison on the same day, is that right? PEREZ: That's right. The plan is for these people to be set free.

These are people who, as the president just mentioned, received much stiffer sentences than they would if they were to be sentenced for the same offenses now, Pamela. And the president has gotten this reputation of being a bit stingy with pardons and commutations.

[14:15:01] But on commutations, you know, if you go behind the numbers, you see that he's turning that around, in part because the administration has changed the way prosecutors are treating some of these lower level, what are now considered lower level drug offenses. And so now they've gone back. They encouraged - the Justice Department encouraged lawyers and defendants to apply for commutations because these are people who, again, you know, if they were to be sentenced now, would be getting much less time. Some of them are getting - were getting lifetime prison sentences. Some of them were 100 years or more for crack offenses that today would be just, you know, a few years.

BROWN: And I want to bring in Van Jones on this because, Van, I see you shaking your head. You've been really passionate about this issue.


BROWN: Tell me why this is so significant and the mandatory minimums. Like as Evan pointed out, there were people who were serving longer sentences for crack cocaine than for cocaine offenses.

JONES: Yes. Well, people were serving longer sentences for crack cocaine than for shooting cops. I mean let's be clear.

BROWN: Wow. That - that really puts it in perspective.

JONES: I mean, let's be clear.

BROWN: Right.

JONES: We're in a situation now where you literally have people who are doing 30 years, 35 years, life sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Look, I went to Yale Law School. Eighty percent of that campus were nonviolent drug offenders, OK? So, you know, you're not talking about people who cannot be given a second chance. And, frankly, even people who have done things much worse than that should be given a second chance.

But I'm very proud of the president because, frankly, the Republicans have been getting way out front on this. You have Ted Cruz saying the mandatory minimums don't make sense. You have Republican Governors Kasich, Deal in Georgia, Rick Perry, the whole country is saying -

BROWN: And even Newt Gingrich, right?

JONES: And Newt Gingrich -


JONES: Has been one of the - the big champs on this saying, listen, you have a big, stale government bureaucracy that is locking people up, stealing their liberty for no good reason, for - and none of the science shows that it makes anybody better if they have an addiction issue to put them in - to put them behind bars for this long.

BROWN: And so it makes you wonder if the bipartisan, you know, support played into this and also perhaps President Obama's legacy as well. How much do you think that was part of today's decision?

JONES: I think this is going to be a big part of his legacy and I think it's going to be one of the few areas where you're going to be able to see finally Republicans and Democrats come together.

Honestly, I'm thrilled. Also, you have organizations that have been pushing this for a long time. Families Against Mandatory Minimums is an organization. People can go online. Some of their people are part of this. People have been saying for a very, very long time, this does not make sense. It's not good for America. It's not consistent with liberty and justice for all if you're putting - you know, in the United States, nobody knows this, one out of every four people locked up anywhere in the world are locked up here in the United States.

BROWN: Well, and we have, correct me if I'm wrong with this, but 5 percent of the world's population, 25 percent of the prison's population. So this isn't just about the individuals. It's also about the overcrowding in our prison systems.

JONES: Yes. Right.

BROWN: So, all right, Van Jones, thank you so much for coming on, and Evan Perez, of course, thank you.

Up next right here in NEWSROOM, rereading the tea leaves on a possible nuclear deal with Iran. Does a deleted tweet by the president of Iran hold clues on how this might turn out? My next guest says this deal is still too big to fail. We'll find out why.

Also, CNN goes underground and inside the extensive tunnel system once used by Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo, including a tunnel hidden under his own bathtub. Stay with us. More on that after this break.


[14:22:39] BROWN: Just hours after the U.S. and other world powers appeared close to a nuclear deal with Iran, it now looks like there will be no deal announcement today. Multiple sources taking part in the talks say one of the last sticking points is the possible wording of a U.N. Security Council resolution. Iran wants any resolution arising from a deal to include a lifting of the arms embargo now in place against Iran. But that's a nonstarter for the U.S. Just last week on Capitol Hill, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey said that he opposed the lifting of the arms embargo and the secretary of defense agreed. Take a listen.


SEN. KELLY AYOTTE (R), NEW HAMPSHIRE: It doesn't sound like, based on what you're saying, given their malign activities in the region, that it would be a good idea to lift the arms embargo right now on what Iran receives. Would you agree with me on that? ASHTON CARTER, DEFENSE SECRETARY: Yes, we want them to continue to be

isolated as a military and limited in terms of the kind of equipment and material they're able to purchase (ph).


BROWN: All right, let's talk about the potential Iran deal and the arms embargo with Vali Nasr. He is the former senior adviser at the State Department.

So, Vali, this last-minute holdup over the arms embargo, do you think that this could actually kill the deal?

VALI NASR, DEAN, SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTL. STUDIES, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIV.: No, I don't think so. I think it's going to be something they're going to haggle over. That ultimately if Iran's not going to get this, they're going to ask for something else. And there are also other little technicalities that they have to work out.

I think both sides have put too much into this deal for too long and there's a lot of the prestige of both sides is riding on this deal going through. So I don't think they would walk away from it very easily.

BROWN: Are you surprised that this has emerged as the main sticking point? It seemed like the arms embargo was sort of on the periphery and now all of a sudden it's this huge issue.

NASR: Well, you know, in negotiations like this, you know, each party is connected to another part. So when they talk about lifting of sanctions in one area, automatically an issue of what is covered under sanctions would come to the fore. There are also countries like China and Russia, which are very interesting in lifting of these sanctions, because they look to see, what is it that they can sell to Iran and do business with Iran once the sanctions are lifted. And there's going to be a lot of bonanza for them if Iran is able to actually spend the money that we - that the United States and the other European powers are going to unfreeze on arm sales from Russia and China. So I think those powers have also been pushing this lifting of the arms embargo on the agenda.

[14:25:09] BROWN: Yes, Russia's been pretty outspoken. And, of course, Russia does sell weapons, lot of weapons, to Iran.

You talked about how big of a deal it is for both sides. In fact, the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, posed and then quickly deleted a tweet just a short time ago. And let's read it. It says, "Iran deal is the victory of diplomacy and mutual respect over the outdated paradigm of exclusion and coercion. And I think this is a good beginning." So he deleted that tweet. But in your view, does this give a window into how Iran's government will try to sell this expected deal?

NASR: Absolutely. They're trying to show this as a diplomatic victory for themselves, that all this time and effort that they have spent has been productive for Iran, and they're also going to try to rally the Iranian public around this deal and make it much easier to sell it when they go back home. I think the sense with that Iranian government is that if they can show the Iranian public that this deal is a good deal, that it will open Iran to integration into the global community, will bring economic benefits, then that Iranian public can ultimately, perhaps parliament and the establishment will support the deal as well.

BROWN: And it makes you wonder how the U.S. will try to sell it, especially to those politicians who wanted the nuclear program gone - you know, essentially gone, which likely will not be part of this deal.

Vali Nasr, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

NASR: Thank you.

BROWN: And up next, is the GOP establishment turning on Donald Trump?


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think he's hijacked the debate. I think he's a wrecking ball for the future of the Republican Party with the Hispanic community and we need to push back.


BROWN: And media mogul Rupert Murdoch also taking a swipe at the billionaire candidate, this as Trump continues to draw large crowds with his strong stance on immigration. Does this pose a problem for the GOP brand? Stay with us. We'll discuss.