Mexico’s most notorious drug lord now has one more nefarious title: serial prison escapee.
Authorities are scrambling to find Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman after his stunning escape from a maximum-security prison Saturday night.
The leader of the Sinaloa cartel stepped into a shower, crawled through a hole and vanished through a mile-long tunnel apparently built just for him.
Mexico’s president is livid. So are U.S. officials. And if Guzman gets caught, he could be sent to the United States.
How he did it
Guzman, whose nickname means “Shorty,” is a veteran of prison breaks. In 2001, he escaped from a high-security prison in a laundry cart. It took authorities 13 years to find him again, sleeping at a Mexican beach resort.
This time, he took a much more sophisticated route out of prison: an underground passageway, complete with lighting and ventilation.
The tunnel began with a 50 x 50 centimeter (20 x 20 inch) opening inside the shower of Guzman’s cell, Mexican National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said.
That opening connected to a vertical passageway going more than 10 meters (30 feet) underground. The passageway, outfitted with a ladder, led to a tunnel that was about 1.7 meters (5.5 feet) tall and more than 70 centimeters (28 inches) wide.
The tunnel stretched for more than a mile and ended inside a half-built house. From there, Guzman’s whereabouts are anyone’s guess.
“This represents, without a doubt, an affront to the Mexican state,” Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said. “But also I am confident that the institutions of the Mexican state, particularly those in charge of public safety, are at the level … to recapture this criminal.”
U.S. official: We told you so
Guzman has been a nightmare for both sides of the border. He reigns over a multibillion-dollar global drug empire that supplied much of the marijuana, cocaine and heroin sold on the streets of the United States.
“In addition to his crimes in Mexico, he faces multiple drug trafficking and organized crime charges in the United States,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said.
A spate of U.S. officials are now livid over Guzman’s escape. The last time Guzman was arrested, in 2014, the United States asked to have him extradited to the U.S. in part due to concerns of a prison escape.
“This is exactly why we argued for his extradition,” a U.S. law enforcement official said, adding that the escape shows “the strength of the cartel and his ability to pay people off.”
“If this guy can get out of prison, it shows how deep the corruption is there,” the official said.
U.S. agencies have spent large sums of money, manpower and technology over 13 years to track him down. Now, the U.S. might have to do it all over again.
“The U.S. government stands ready to work with our Mexican partners to provide any assistance that may help support his swift recapture,” Lynch said.
‘The world’s most powerful drug lord’
Guzman heads the Sinaloa Cartel, which the U.S. Justice Department describes as “one of the world’s most prolific, violent and powerful drug cartels.” It says Guzman was “considered the world’s most powerful drug lord until his arrest in Mexico in February 2014.”
“The Sinaloa Cartel moves drugs by land, air, and sea, including cargo aircraft, private aircraft, submarines and other submersible and semi-submersible vessels, container ships, supply vessels, go-fast boats, fishing vessels, buses, rail cars, tractor trailers, trucks, automobiles, and private and commercial interstate and foreign carriers,” the Justice Department said earlier this year.
The cartel has become so powerful that Forbes magazine listed Guzman among the ranks of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett in its 2009 list of “self-made” billionaires. Guzman’s estimated fortune at the time was $1 billion.
Some say he has managed to continue running the cartel even from behind bars. And some say he likely bribed prison workers to help in his escape.
“You cannot build a mile-long tunnel and get into this without some level of corruption,” said journalist Ioan Grillo, author of “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency.”
Mexican authorities said they have brought 18 prison workers to Mexico City for questioning. But it’s still not clear who may have helped in the escape.