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Months earlier, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted more than two dozen people and companies that belonged to what it called a drug-running and money-laundering network that Caro Quintero ran years from behind bars.

A U.S. law enforcement official familiar with the investigation said Caro Quintero, who has not reappeared in public since his release, was passing orders through prison phone calls as well as lawyers and family members who visited him, even as he was shifted between at least three Mexican prisons.

U.S. investigations found a number of upper-tier traffickers have been similarly able to run cartels from behind bars.

“For someone as powerful as Caro Quintero was, and is, it was certainly true,” said the U.S. official, who agreed to discuss the matter only on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. “Even without telephone communications you can transmit a lot of instructions that then are followed.”

David Weinstein, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Miami, said the biggest concern in keeping Guzman in a Mexican prison will be his ability to continue running his global drug empire.

“It could be argued that he would be doing the same thing from a jail, and just bide his time,” said Weinstein who previously ran the narcotics section in Miami.

Weinstein said Guzman almost certainly had some help from various corners of the Mexican government in evading capture for so long. That’s likely information that could be helpful to U.S. prosecutors, but also potentially embarrassing to Mexico, a risk that Pena Nieto can manage with the drug lord behind bars in the Altiplano prison in the state of Mexico, a short drive from the capital.

Keeping hold of Guzman also appears to have become a point of national pride for the Pena Nieto administration.

“We think he’s being perfectly guarded and watched, and we don’t think it’s necessary to do anything else,” Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, the country’s highest law-enforcement official, told The Associated Press. “He will be very isolated. He won’t be allowed to continue with his operations.”

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Associated Press writers Katherine Corcoran and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City and Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington contributed to this report.

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Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein