Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Partly Cloudy Day 37° Partly Cloudy
News >  Nation/World

Drug lord’s escape stuns Mexico, U.S.

Federal police guard a drainage pipe Sunday outside the Altiplano maximum-security prison in Almoloya, west of Mexico City. Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, escaped from the lockup sometime Saturday night. (Associated Press)
Federal police guard a drainage pipe Sunday outside the Altiplano maximum-security prison in Almoloya, west of Mexico City. Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, escaped from the lockup sometime Saturday night. (Associated Press)
Tracy Wilkinson Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY – The tunnel stretched a mile long, from the jailhouse shower to an empty building in a cornfield, and was tall enough for Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to stand upright as he made his escape.

A minor engineering masterpiece, some might say, equipped with ventilation, lighting, oxygen tanks, scaffolding and a motorcycle contraption for removing the tons of dirt being excavated.

Guzman, Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, escaped sometime Saturday night from a maximum-security prison through the elaborate, clandestine passageway, authorities announced Sunday.

He had often used tunnels (as well as bribes and murder) to stay steps ahead of the law during his past decade on the lam. Yet, after his capture last year, the president of Mexico said losing him again would be “unpardonable.”

It is the second time Guzman, head of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s largest trafficker of heroin, cocaine and marijuana, has been able to flee jail. The first time was 2001, from a different prison, when he hid in a laundry cart, and he remained a fugitive (albeit sometimes a public one) until his arrest last year.

Guzman’s escape is a major embarrassment for the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, which has prided itself for having taken down a number of top cartel leaders.

Mexican authorities launched a manhunt late Saturday after discovering Guzman’s disappearance from the maximum-security Altiplano prison about 50 miles west of the capital. Soldiers occupied Mexico City’s international airport, and roadblocks were set up.

The search extended across several states and beyond Mexico’s borders.

More than 30 prison guards and other employees were detained for questioning.

U.S. officials had sought Guzman’s extradition, fearing in part that he would take advantage of the weak, corrupt Mexican justice system to continue his trafficking business and even, eventually, break out. Several U.S. federal indictments have been filed against Guzman, including one in California, but Mexico had said it wanted to prosecute him first.

The tunnel Guzman used to flee was sophisticated. It was nearly a mile long and tall enough for him to stand, authorities said. Its opening was a rectangular hole inside the former prisoner’s shower, measuring 20 inches by 20 inches. It then descended 30 feet, ran its length under largely unpopulated land and ended in an unfinished house under construction in the nondescript Santa Juanita neighborhood, surrounded by empty fields.

Authorities, attempting to explain how it was possible that such an elaborate construction went unnoticed, said Guzman’s shower was the only place in his cell where there were no security cameras.

Monte Alejandro Rubido, Mexico’s security commissioner, said Guzman was last seen about 8 p.m. when he reported for medicine. Then he headed off to the shower. When he didn’t reappear after a time, the alert was sounded and he couldn’t be found.

During his previous stint as a fugitive, Guzman became one of the most powerful drug lords in the world. The Sinaloa cartel expanded its reach throughout much of the U.S., Europe and even Australia. More businesslike than some of the more vicious Mexican cartels, it nevertheless has been deeply involved in the violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives here in recent years.

Guzman eluded capture easily. He had local officials and even part of the security establishment on his payroll and was repeatedly alerted when operations were launched to find him. He was finally tracked down to an apartment complex facing the ocean in the Sinaloan resort city of Mazatlan. He was there with his latest wife, a former beauty queen, and twin daughters, who were born near Los Angeles in 2011.

When he was captured Feb. 22, 2014, he put up no resistance, although – apparently aware that authorities were on his trail – he had fled a few days earlier from the state’s capital, Culiacan, through a network of tunnels and sewers. Then, as now, his skill at tunneling came in handy.

His nickname, El Chapo, means “shorty,” and comes from his relatively small stature; he stands a little less than 5 feet 5 inches. He is thought to be 56, although there are discrepancies on his age.

Pena Nieto and his top Cabinet members were in France on an official visit when news of Guzman’s latest escape broke. Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong rushed back to Mexico.

In an interview with Los Angeles-based Mexican reporter Leon Krauze last year, shortly after Guzman’s capture, Pena Nieto vehemently rejected the idea that he could escape again.

“It would be more than regrettable, it would be unpardonable that the state and the government not take adequate measures to ensure that what happened years ago not be repeated,” the president said.

From Paris on Sunday, the president said only that the escape was unfortunate and a challenge to the Mexican state.

Graco Ramirez, governor of the nearby state of Morelos, one of many on “red alert” after the escape, said the turn of events was “unjustifiable.”

“Mexico’s penal system is in profound crisis,” Ramirez said.

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.