Drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman built a large chunk of his Sinaloa Cartel’s billion dollar empire through sophisticated tunnels his operatives built to smuggle drugs into the United States and weapons and cash into Mexico.
Saturday night, El Chapo used a tunnel to pull off an audacious escape Saturday night, from a maximum-security Altiplano prison where he’d been detained since Mexican Marines and police captured him in February 2014 in the seaside resort town of Mazatlan.
The tunnel was constructed 30 feet below ground and is almost a mile long. El Chapo went into the shower stall of his cell around 9 p.m. Saturday night and lowered himself into a small hole, 2-by-2 feet, that led to the tunnel, about 30 feet below ground. The tunnel featured lights, ventilation, and a motorcycle on rails, which clandestine construction workers may have used to carry out earth — and perhaps to whisk El Chapo to freedom.
Mexican Armed Forces and police quickly launched a massive manhunt, and stopped all flights from the nearest airport. But as of Monday night, authorities had found no sign of the drug kingpin, who is known as El Chapo because of his small stature (Guzman is about five-feet-six inches tall).
It was the second time El Chapo has escaped from a Mexican prison. In 2001, he fled another Mexican prison, reportedly by hiding in a laundry cart.
The bold prison break is certain to raise uncomfortable questions about whether corrupt prison guards helped the leader of the world’s largest drug trafficking group escape, and to anger members of the Armed Forces that captured him after a manhunt that lasted more than a decade.
“It is evident the escape of El Chapo will cause anger on the part of the Armed Forces regarding the capacity of the civil security system in Mexico to guard someone as notorious and dangerous as Joaquin Guzman,” said Armando Rodriguez Luna, a security analyst at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
El Chapo’s escape shows that Mexico has far to go when it comes to providing public safety, “particularly at the state and municipal levels,” Rodriguez Luna said.
The capture of El Chapo had been a point of pride for the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. The drug kingpin’s escape – literally under the feet of prison officials – is a humiliating embarrassment for Peña Nieto.
The president, who was in Paris for a four-day state visit, issued a statement Sunday saying El Chapo’s escape has “outraged Mexican society” and predicted law enforcement authorities would quickly recapture the diminutive drug kingpin. The president promised a thorough investigation into whether El Chapo escaped with the help of prison officials. It appeared likely some prison officials were paid off – or intimidated – into helping El Chapo get away. How else to explain how the tunnel led right to the shower in El Chapo’s cell? Whoever built the tunnel would have needed a detailed blueprint of the prison’s layout.
“We are talking about an act of corruption, evidently El Chapo paid people off to help him escape,” Rodriguez Luna said. “But beyond that, there is an environment in which someone lke him has the loyalty of people who work within the structures of the state.”
Before El Chapo’s escape, Peña Nieto’s administration had registered some successes in the fight against Mexican drug cartels. For example, in February, Mexican police captured Servando “La Tuta” Gomez, the leader of the Knights Templar, a transnational criminal organization. In July 2013, Mexican Marines captured Miguel Angel Trevino Morales, the leader of Los Zetas, who who is known as “Z-40.” Nine months before that, in October 2012, Mexican Marines killed Z-40’s predecessor, Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, who was known as “The Executioner” and “Z-3.”
The Mexican government has been waging a bloody battle with Mexican drug cartels since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderon sent the country’s Armed Forces to confront organized crime groups. More than 100,000 people have been killed since then.
In recent years, Los Zetas has developed a fearsome reputation for bloodshed, largely by committing spectacular acts of violence, such as beheading cartel rivals, or killing dozens of people at a time. For instance, Los Zetas operatives killed 72 migrants in 2010, reportedly because many of them refused to work for the criminal organization.
Nonetheless, overall, the Sinaloa Cartel led by El Chapo – the largest of the Mexican organized crime groups – has killed more people than Los Zetas or any other drug cartel.
Now that he is free, El Chapo is likely to make his way to the mountains of Sinaloa state, where he was born and where enjoys the support of much of the local population – as well as his well-armed cartel operatives.
El Chapo will “likely resume control of the organization,” Rodriguez Luna said.
Julieta Pelcastre is a journalist based in Mexico City who writes about organzed crime.