The elaborate escape of Mexico’s most-wanted drug kingpin from a maximum security prison reads like a crime thriller: Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán slipped through a hole in his shower cell, descended a 10m ladder where a 1,500m tunnel – equipped with ventilation and lighting – led him to a recently-built house. It was his second successful escape from maximum-security lock-up.
The 10,000 Mexican police and soldiers out hunting him seem utterly clueless about his whereabouts now.That the country’s top criminal could make such an audacious getaway has stunned everyone – except Mexicans.
A poll in Mexico’s most-read newspaper, Reforma, says 54 per cent of respondents don’t believe the tunnel story. Many think officials may have simply let him walk out the prison’s front door.
“Who knows if it was even El Chapo locked up?” said Eduardo Sanchez, sitting at his newspaper stand in Mexico City, tidying a stack of Reformas. “When he was last captured, they said it was him but it looked like a different person to me.”This isn’t a fringe opinion in Mexico. Some here will tell you the government broke their end of a deal with his Sinaloa cartel, so El Chapo ran. Others will say his lock-up was meaningless, that he kept running the cartel as always.
It’s no surprise Mexicans are dubious. The government’s handling of Guzmán – from his liberties in prison to the disjointed manhunt – seems almost impossibly flawed.
Incarcerating and trying Guzmán in Mexico was a big bet for the Mexican government because US officials were eager to extradite the capo, as they have done with other feared kingpins. They requested extradition as recently as June 25.“Mexico wanted to prove they were up to the task of combating the big cartels,” said Chris Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank.
Mexico’s Attorney General at the time mockingly told his northern neighbours he would only allow Guzmán’s extradition after he served his sentence in Mexico – saying that would be, “300 or 400 years later – it will be a while.”
But a mere 18 months later Guzman is free. And his brief lock-up in Altiplano, the country’s highest security prison, appears far from arduous. The surveillance footage of Guzmán’s cell shows all sorts of luxury knick-knacks the country’s top criminal probably shouldn’t have: an iPad, mobile phones, folders and notebooks. His lawyer visited constantly, bringing mysterious guests along. Guzmán allegedly organised 137 prisoners – including cartel rivals – to file a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission against the prison over the quality of their meals, all while supposedly in solitary confinement.
Meanwhile, on the outside, his cronies were preparing his escape – and at a bargain price.
“Organised crime has clearly lowered the costs of corrupting authorities because government institutions are so bad,” said Alberto Islas, a security analyst with the firm Risk-Evaluation. “For the Sinaloa cartel, this turned out to be very cheap.”
It started with a £240 bribe to build a house on land 500 metres from the prison’s guard towers. Neighbours say no more than five men were seen at the house at once, a lean excavation crew.
They tunnelled right into Guzman’s shower, a spot that would have been easy to find with the GPS on his gadgets. Apparently, not a noise was heard by guards as they smashed through the floor – his neighbour, the head of the Gulf Cartel, Mario Cárdenas Guillén, said he "heard nothing". The hole was expertly placed in a blind spot for security cameras.On the night of July 11, surveillance footage shows the kingpin pace back and forth, checking his escape hatch. He sits on the bed, changes his shoes, then vanishes into the shower. It took the prison 18 minutes to warn that their number one prisoner was missing.
“Given what we know about the ability of organised crime to corrupt prison officials and government officials, it’s not surprising something like this was attempted,” said Chris Wilson.
President Enrique Peña Nieto’s top security officials scrambled to begin the search and to calm the conspiracy chatter. Meanwhile, the president and most of his cabinet were celebrating Bastille Day in Paris, ironically, honouring a prison break.
Back home in Mexico, Mr Pena Nieto’s top team seemed woefully ill-suited for damage control.
During the government’s first major press conference about the escape, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, the interior minister and a presidential aspirant, pointed the finger at human rights for the surveillance blind spots in Guzman's shower and the prison’s flimsy tracking bracelet, which he ripped off before fleeing.
“It was the National Human Rights Commission itself that wouldn’t permit the use of [outside tracking] bracelets inside the prisons,” he told press. He later downplayed those statements.
Over at the Attorney General’s office, it took nearly 48 hours to distribute the most recent photo of El Chapo, hair shaved and without his signature moustache. Thousands of police had already been out searching with the few, old photos of the illusive kingpin.“There have been lots of things [Minister Osorio] can’t explain,” said Mr Islas. “It’s just been a series of contradictions by the interior ministry. They don’t have a clue what’s going on.”
Nearly a week later, the interior ministry still has nothing to report but a new, higher number of police and army on the hunt and seven prison staff behind bars. The last time Guzmán escaped, it took the government 13 years to track him down, during which time he made Forbes’ Billionaires list.
Now back in Mexico, Mr Peña Nieto insists he has “full confidence” El Chapo will be recaptured, given authorities’, “bravery, courage, and dedication”. So far Mexicans seem highly dubious.
The government’s inability to handle even the most basic steps of the investigation has been caught some by surprise.
“I didn’t think it was this bad,” said Mr Islas. “What this means for the Sinaloa cartel and any other cartel is that trafficking drugs in Mexico will be a walk in the park.”
It’s not just this prison break fuelling Mexican distrust. Recent history suggests the government is often at the whim of cartels.
In 2013, Rafael Caro Quintero, one of the godfathers of Mexican trafficking, was abruptly let out of prison on a technicality and hasn’t been seen since. He had served 28 of a 40-year sentence for the murder of a DEA agent.
High-level politicians from Mr Peña Nieto’s PRI party are wanted by the DEA for working with major cartels: in the northern Tamaulipas state, the last two governors are wanted for laundering money for the vicious Los Zetas cartel.
Both Mexican and American authorities are accused of making deals with cartels, including Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel. A 2010 email on WikiLeaks from a Mexican diplomat explained the strategy against traffickers: they can go about their business as long as they are discrete and peaceful.
Furthermore, a 2014 investigation from Mexican newspaper El Universal revealed DEA agents met with Sinaloa cartel leaders at least 50 times between 2000 and 2012, trading information for free passage of drugs.
Seeing all this together, coupled with the fact Mexican drug trafficking is as powerful as ever with organisations diversifying into heroin and methamphetamines, the wilder theories about El Chapo gain steam.
Although he doesn’t buy any of them, the snowballing conspiracy theories aren’t surprising, said Chris Wilson.
“The reason these theories about top-level negotiation and complicity with drug kingpins have such a hold within Mexican society is because there’s no faith in government,” he said. “There’s no belief that there’s transparent information and that [authorities] are forthcoming and honest in their dealings.”
This has been especially true in the last year. First, the military covered up their execution of 22 alleged criminals, pretending there had been a fierce firefight. Next, the president’s £4.4 million mansion, known as his White House, was revealed to be owned by a top government contractor. And perhaps most significantly, 43 poor students disappeared at the hands of police, which the government followed with a flat-footed, shoddy investigation. (What exactly happened to the 43 is still in doubt.)
Despite this string of blunders and repeated inability to deal with crisis, most security analysts agree the likelihood of high-level collusion in Guzman’s escape is unlikely for one simple reason.
“The person most hurt by this is President Peña Nieto,” said Mr Islas. “If they don’t recapture him during this term, he’ll go down in history as the man who let El Chapo escape a second time.”And the debate will continue: how high up does the government-cartel collusion go?
“We’re in Mexico, anything can happen,” said Eduardo, as he sells another newspaper – the already infamous tunnel on the cover.