The Gritty Details of El Chapo’s Escape

Searching for ‘the big lie’ at the heart of the kingpin’s escape plot.

Manuel Velasquez/AFP/Getty

Joaquín Guzmán, the Mexican drug kingpin better known by his nickname “El Chapo,” meaning Shorty, ended his brief tenure as Mexico’s wealthiest and most famous prison inmate last Saturday night.

El Chapo is the head of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s largest drug-trafficking organization. His success in this illicit trade earned him both a place on the Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest men, and a cell in the special housing unit of Mexico’s most fortified prison, the Federal Social Readaptation Center No. 1, known as Altiplano. He had been arrested on February 22, 2014, by an elite team of Mexican Marines at a condominium in the Pacific coast city of Mazatlán.

All that remains of El Chapo at Altiplano today is the grainy surveillance footage from his final moments in a private cell. The video, shot at 8:52 p.m., shows him walking to the shower stall, ducking behind a waist-high partition, and disappearing from view. Depending on the source, the alert either went out 18 minutes after the image of El Chapo disappeared from security monitors, as the Mexican Interior Ministry reports, or one hour and 23 minutes later, as sources in the Army and Navy commands informed the national magazine Proceso.

At around the time El Chapo was squeezing through a hole in the floor of his shower stall and descending a 30-foot ladder to a mile-long tunnel in the bowels of the earth beneath the prison, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and 10 cabinet ministers—including the secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Interior— were in the air aboard the president's Boeing-787 Dreamliner en route to economic talks in France. Miguel Osorio Chong, as secretary of the interior the second-most powerful political officer in the country, flew back to Mexico. The others remained behind through the weekend as the guests of honor at Bastille Day on July 14.

Osorio Chong, when he met with reporters in Mexico on Monday, tried to address the first ever successful escape from Altiplano, and his remarks were strange. He didn’t quite praise the prison, but he did seem to imply that El Chapo’s escape had only enhanced the penitentiary’s reputation. “I could talk about some prisons in the U.S. and Europe that became legendary because criminals could stage incredible escapes from them,” he said at one point.

El Chapo has now escaped from not one but two maximum-security federal prisons in Mexico, a feat believed to be the first of its kind in Mexican history. He escaped from the Puente Grande federal prison in the state of Jalisco in 2001.

As the shock of this latest escape subsides, the questions continue to accumulate for Osorio Chong and the secretaries of justice and national security who stayed behind in Mexico.

To begin with, how does the excavation of a clandestine tunnel perforate the floor of a maximum-security prison without any alarms being tripped or staff noticing a sound?

Osorio Chong, by way of an answer, credited the tunnel as a feat of “high technology.” And indeed, it is. The tunnel is 4,921 feet long—slightly more than half the length of the Holland Tunnel—ventilated with PVC pipes, illuminated by overhead electric bulbs, equipped with rails attached to a small motorbike reportedly to speed El Chapo to the end, and built to his exact height of 5 feet 6 inches, so he was able to walk in it upright. It leads from El Chapo’s prison cell to a shed on a weed-strewn lot in the village of Santa Juanita.

Osorio Chong suggested El Chapo had to have relied on the aid of prison staff or directors to make his escape. General Jorge Carrillo Olea, the former chief of Mexico’s spy agency CISEN, agrees.

Altiplano is “impossible to penetrate,” Carrillo told the national magazine Variopinto. “I know this, I designed the damn thing, it is impregnable. The installation is impregnable, but the people who work there are not. Unfortunately, there is much corruption.”

Some cite Carrillo's pungent remarks as calling into question parts of Osorio Chong’s official version.

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For instance, Carrillo took issue with the secretary of the interior’s claim that El Chapo, to evade prison cameras, gravitated to a “blind spot” in the cell. Such blind spots, the secretary said, exist for reasons having to do with human rights and the respect for privacy. Carrillo, on the other hand, said the video surveillance system was “an absolute and total invasion of your privacy, they film you on the toilet, and it may be impolite to talk about but they film you when you masturbate. You have not the least bit of privacy while you eat or sleep, you’re being monitored at all times.”

Seeming to corroborate Carrillo’s claim, a former political prisoner and inmate of the special housing unit at Altiplano, Flavio Sosa, told the journalist Diego Osorno the only blind spot in his cell was under the bed. Sosa also said the prison guards inspected rooms in the unit three times a month and that they banged hammers on the cell walls and floor to detect any hidden compartments.

“There is a big lie at the heart of all this,” Carrillo is quoted saying.

Secretary Osorio Chong said he suspects El Chapo’s accomplices must have had access to the blueprints of Altiplano. And yet as of Wednesday, no one is under arrest; Attorney General Arely Gómez has taken statements from 34 prison officials and 17 inmates, but the only action from the interior ministry has been to dismiss the director of Altiplano, Librado Carmona Garcia, and two administrators in the bureau of prisons. Osorio Chong gives no indication that higher-level officials are in danger of dismissal or indictment.

Altiplano is 290,000 square feet of drab perimeter walls and guard towers in Mexico state near Toluca, an hour’s drive from Mexico City. The prison boasts ubiquitous motion sensors, hidden microphones, a 24-hour closed circuit network of video surveillance cameras, and 26 layers of security from the outermost vehicular checkpoint to the section holding the most dangerous prisoners like El Chapo.

Altiplano is a real-life version of Gotham City’s Arkham for Mexico’s cruelest and most sinister criminals, and no section more so than the special housing unit, whose roll call includes gangsters identifiable by nickname alone—La Tuta, La Barbie, Z-40, El H, El Padrino.

More questions arose for at the opposite end of the tunnel.

The 8th Regiment of the Mexican Army is stationed less than half a mile away from Santa Juanita. Osorio Chong told the press that for the previous year and a half the Mexican Army and Federal Police have been conducting special surveillance outside the prison walls. As the front-page headline of the national daily Reforma noted, “And no one saw 3,250 tons of dirt.” Why, in a landscape devoid of trees or natural obstructions, was there no sign of the earth removed from the tunnel?

El País interviewed four campesinos at Santa Juanita, none of whom said they noticed anything out of the ordinary; they didn’t see trucks hauling away dirt at the property where the tunnel emerges.

The house had no plumbing and was built only a year before the escape. The inhabitants were two quiet young couples who drove a pickup truck and occasionally a cargo van. The only tractor was a small one they used one week to plow a path across the overgrown backyard to the nearest dirt path. “When my cows would wander into the yard the young ladies there just laughed about it,” said Jesús, a property owner in Santa Juanita quoted by El País. “They were outside and their husbands were inside.”

There was one obvious excavation the campesinos in Santa Juanita did see, but it was the sprawling underground renovation of the prison plumbing system, a dig reportedly the size of a highway. The contractor was Sistema Cutzamala, a state builder attached to the federal water utility. The Cutzamala project, working day and night, made noise loud enough to drown out most other sounds, maybe even the noise of the tunneling beneath the prison, at least in the opinion of Antonio, a villager who lives 800 feet from the house. The water pipes have a diameter of approximately 14 feet, more than wide enough for a man to pass through.

A journalist for La Crónica de Hoy named Daniel Blancas Madrigal was arrested by state police on Sunday afternoon and briefly held in detention for trespassing where El Chapos tunnel crosses the area of the Cutzamala dig, which literally runs parallel along the length of the prison wall. The charge against the journalist was “impersonating a Federal Policeman.” He was released on Sunday.

Francisco N, a neighbor in Santa Juanita, says he heard the buzzing of a small helicopter, like a mosquito, on the night of the escape. Helicopters in the sky above Altiplano are not unusual, but villagers are accustomed to larger ones, like the Black Hawks flown by the Army or Marines. Francisco said the small size of this helicopter was unusual because the airspace above the prison is a no-fly zone.

The U.S. Justice Department made no secret of its desire, when El Chapo was still in prison, to have him extradited to face criminal charges in the United States. The Peña Nieto government declined, with Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam scoffing that the U.S. could expect Chapo’s extradition after he served his sentence in Mexico, in “300 or 400 years.” Secretary Osorio Chong did not seem apologetic in his remarks on Monday, defending Altiplano, the prison inadequate for the task of holding El Chapo, as having “the same certification as a lot of [prisons] I could mention in the United States.”

At different times in the history of Mexico-U.S. relations, drug and law-enforcement policy has taken a back seat to bigger binational priorities. Several retired DEA agents say that during the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations, the Clinton administration discouraged corruption investigations against Mexican government officials. “I received a phone call from headquarters that said, ‘Do not report corruption in Mexico because it will interfere with NAFTA,’” said Mike Holm, a DEA supervisor stationed in Los Angeles in the early 1990s.

Peña Nieto’s presidency began with moves to liberalize the telecommunications, education and state-managed petroleum sectors, this last of which will be accepting foreign bids at auction next week for the first time since the 1940s.

El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel is the single largest supplier of drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine to the United States. But the Mexican government’s bumbling and evasions with regard to the great escape did not elicit so much as a reprimand from the White House, whose only comment on the escape was a mild restatement of support for the manhunt. Press spokesman Josh Earnest reminded the press that Mexico is “a sovereign government” with “their own responsibilities” where crime is concerned. Mexico, for its part, has yet to respond to an offer from the U.S. to bolster its manhunt for El Chapo with surveillance equipment and reinforcements. The delay in response comes at a crucial early stage of the manhunt.

True to form, the DEA is not taking the drug lord’s escape passively. With or without authorization from the White House, sources at the DEA leaked internal agency memos to CBS, AP, and the Wall Street Journal indicating El Chapo’s prison break was an event foretold.

As far back as 16 months ago, the documents show the DEA had alerted Mexican authorities to plots by El Chapo’s criminal associates and family members to break him out of prison. The DEA learned of at least two prior escape plans from telephone surveillance. In March 2014, the Los Angeles office of the DEA warned of a possible escape plan funded by the drug lord Rafael Caro Quintero. In December 2014, a Mexican general informed Houston DEA of an “agreement” to free Guzman and Miguel Angel Treviño, Z-40, leader of the Zetas cartel.

At his press conference on Monday, Osorio Chong denied the Mexican government ever received any such warnings.

Additional indications that plans for escape were underway came from a Twitter page that appears to belong to El Chapo’s son, Ivan Archivaldo Guzmán. On May 18, he wrote a message that reads, in part, “I promise you all that soon the general will return.” And on July 6, “Everything comes to those who know how to wait.”

El Chapo’s son also is believed to be behind the leak of two photos of his father allegedly taken since the escape. In the first, he is riding in the cockpit of a plane; in the second, he is seated with a bottle of beer at what appears to be a social event. Neither photograph has been confirmed to be of El Chapo, but a certain resemblance is undeniable.