A Drug Lord's Infuriating, Inevitable Escape

The Mexican government can’t bring El Chapo, its most notorious drug criminal, to justice.

Policemen guard the site where a tunnel, connected to the Altiplano Federal Penitentiary and used by drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman to escape, was located in Almoloya de Juarez, on the outskirts of Mexico City, July 12, 2015.  (Tomas Bravo / Reuters)

Late on Saturday night, Joaquin Guzman walked into a shower at Mexico’s maximum-security Altiplano Prison, entered a secret tunnel, and moved underground for more than a kilometer before emerging in a house on the other side of the prison walls. Just one year after his arrest for drug trafficking and organized crime triggered national celebration, Mexico’s most notorious criminal had vanished again.

For Guzman—known as “El Chapo” because of his short stature—the escape adds another chapter to an almost mythical life. Born and raised in rural poverty, the 58-year-old rose to become the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, a $3 billion drug trafficking empire that now controls 25 percent of all marijuana, cocaine, and heroin imported into the United States. Mexican authorities initially captured El Chapo in Guatemala in 1993—only to see him escape from prison through a laundry cart eight years later. Despite his complicity in untold death and misery, the escape from authority had turned El Chapo  into an unlikely “Robin Hood” figure, a man whose exploits were portrayed in books, film, and popular music.

As the New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe—the author of an outstanding profile of El Chapo published in 2012—wrote on Sunday, it’s natural to hold a perverse fascination with criminal derring-do. Earlier this summer, the ingenious escape of Richard Matt and David Sweat from a maximum-security prison in upstate New York turned the men into objects of admiration—even though both were convicted murderers.

“Chapo is hardly the first anti-hero to seize the popular imagination, and the most reliable formula of the Hollywood thriller is to place your protagonist in a situation from which there is no escape, and then watch while he escapes,” wrote Keefe.

El Chapo’s escape is likely to damage relations between Mexico and the U.S. After the drug tycoon’s arrest last year, Mexican authorities refused an American request to extradite him to the U.S., and the country’s then-Attorney General dismissed the possibility that he might escape. President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has continued predecessor Felipe Calderon’s uncompromising campaign against the cartels, added that such a scenario was “unpardonable.”

But now that the unpardonable has happened, authorities on the American side have reacted with alarm. An undercover U.S. FBI agent told the Dallas Morning News that El Chapo’s flight was like Osama Bin Laden escaping prison—and the state has only itself to blame. “What does this say about Mexican corruption?” the agent asked. “Disgusting.”

Indeed, El Chapo’s flight from prison had less to do with mystical qualities than to something rather more mundane: his wealth. During his earlier incarceration—the one which he escaped through the laundry cart—Guzman reportedly paid over $2.5 million in bribes and relied heavily on cooperation with authorities. According to Keefe, Saturday’s escape was also the result of a team effort. The tunnel through which El Chapo departed featured lighting and ventilation, and he “hopped onto a motorcycle that was specially modified to run on rails” in order to reach the other side.

The inability of Mexico to bring its most notorious criminal to justice may make for a compelling story, the kind that idea-starved Hollywood producers would salivate over. But the real losers in the El Chapo saga aren’t embarrassed government officials or angry American FBI agents but rather the Mexican people themselves. Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s president until 2013, once claimed that 90 percent of the victims of the drug wars were “criminals.” But the kidnappings, extortion, and police corruption seep into every corner of society.

“You have criminal groups taking advantage of the overall security situation and basically pulling people at gunpoint and saying ‘give me your money,’” Ben West, an analyst at Stratfor, told the Guardian. “With the police all caught up in this, there is no rule of law.”