After Mexico’s most notorious drug lord stepped into a shower and slipped into a tunnel to escape from a maximum-security prison, authorities vowed it wouldn’t be long before the Sinaloa cartel chief was behind bars again.
Prison security cameras last recorded images of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on Saturday night, just before he apparently crawled through a hole in the shower area of his cell block at the Altiplano Federal Prison.
Authorities said they later discovered a lighted and ventilated tunnel nearly a mile long that stretched from the prison to a half-built house, where investigators were searching for signs of Guzman’s whereabouts Sunday.
Now a massive manhunt is underway to find Guzman, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said.
Speaking to reporters Sunday from France, where he is traveling on a state visit, Peña Nieto avoided mentioning the drug lord by name, but he said he was closely following news of the escape of a man who has been among the most wanted criminals in Mexico and around the world.
Peña Nieto said he was “deeply troubled” by “a very unfortunate event that has outraged Mexican society.” He vowed that his government would recapture Guzman, step up prison security and investigate whether any prison workers helped the kingpin break out.
“This represents, without a doubt, an affront to the Mexican state, but also I am confident that the institutions of the Mexican state, particularly those in charge of public safety, are at the level, with the strength and determination, to recapture this criminal,” Peña Nieto said.
Guzman is the storied boss of one of the world’s most powerful and deadly drug trafficking operations.
He escaped in 2001 from a high-security prison in a laundry cart and was not apprehended again until 2014, when he was arrested at a Mexican beach resort.
News that he’d somehow managed to break out again drew sharp condemnation at home from Peña Nieto’s political opponents and abroad from U.S. officials, who’d pushed for his extradition.
“One would have assumed that he would have been the most watched criminal in the world, and apparently, that just didn’t happen. This is a huge embarrassment for the Mexican government,” said Ana Maria Salazar, a security analyst and former Pentagon counternarcotics official. “Obviously it’s going to raise a lot of questions as to what’s happening with the Mexican criminal justice system.”
‘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 trafficking network keeps U.S. drug agents busy. In January, the Justice Department unsealed indictments naming 60 members of the cartel, including Guzman’s son, Ivan Archivaldo Guzman-Salazar, aka “El Chapito.”
The main indictment said the cartel imported cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, other drugs and the chemicals necessary to process methamphetamine into Mexico from various countries, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California said in a news release.
The drugs were then smuggled into San Diego for distribution throughout the United States, the statement said, adding that money was then laundered through a variety of means.
In just one phase of the investigation, which the Justice Department said spanned eight countries and a dozen U.S. states, authorities seized more than 1,400 pounds of methamphetamine, almost 3,000 pounds of cocaine, 12.2 tons of marijuana and 5,500 oxycodone pills, along with $14.1 million.
Also this year, federal authorities announced: Thirty-one people were charged in February with conspiring to launder $100 million for the Sinaloa Cartel in a cash-for-gold scheme; Jose Rodrigo Arechiga-Gamboa, an alleged Sinaloa kingpin who goes by “Chino Antrax,” pleaded guilty in federal court in May to helping coordinate the shipment of tons of marijuana and cocaine into the U.S.; and last month, U.S. officials announced indictments against a Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based trafficking network with ties to Sinaloa.
Toluca International Airport closed
In Mexico, the diminutive Guzman became a larger-than-life figure as he eluded authorities while expanding a drug empire that spanned the world. His life story became the topic of best-selling books and the subject of adoring songs known as narcocorridos.
In the United States, he is wanted on multiple federal drug trafficking and organized crime charges.
His nickname, which means “Shorty,” matches his 5-foot-6-inch frame.
The statement from the National Security Commission said that, at 8:52 p.m. Saturday, surveillance cameras at the Altiplano federal prison saw Guzman approaching a shower area in which prisoners also wash their belongings.
When Guzman was not seen again for some time, officials checked his cell, found it empty, and issued an alert.
Altiplano is a maximum security prison in south central Mexico.
Officials not only launched a manhunt, they also closed Toluca International Airport, a 45-minute drive away.
Tunnel vision: A look inside El Chapo’s underground hideaways
It’s no wonder a mile-long tunnel was Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s method of choice in his latest escape from a maximum-security prison.
Throughout his reign at the helm of one of Mexico’s most ruthless cartels, tunnels have been a mainstay of how the notorious drug kingpin hid out from authorities hot on his trail and built an empire that landed him on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s richest moguls.
Here’s a look at some of the Sinaloa cartel’s most infamous underground passageways to date:
After Guzman made his getaway from Mexico’s Altiplano prison over the weekend, authorities say they made a shocking find underground: a lighted and ventilated tunnel, replete with tracks and a modified motorcycle inside.
The tunnel, Mexican National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said Sunday, began with a 50 x 50 centimeter (20 x 20 inch) opening inside the shower of Guzman’s cell that connected to a vertical passageway going about 10 meters (33 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.
It stretched for more than a mile and ended inside a half-built house.
Inside the passageway, investigators found what Rubido described as an “adapted motorcycle on tracks that was likely used to remove dirt during the excavation and transport the tools for the dig.”
There’s little doubt that someone helped him build it. But the question is, who?
“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 President Enrique Peña Nieto says authorities are investigating whether prison workers played a role.
One former drug smuggler told CNN on Sunday that it’s clear authorities weren’t looking for tunnels around the prison before Guzman got out — a sign they weren’t concerned about keeping the notorious drug lord in custody.
“Here’s a guy who time and again has proved he can build a hole in the ground,” said Brian O’Dea, a one-time smuggler who detailed his experiences in the drug trade in a 2009 memoir. “If they’re not looking at every single piece piece of soil around where they have that guy locked up, then they don’t have the willingness.”
Secret passageways to elude capture
After Guzman was captured last year, authorities said a key discovery marked a turning point in their investigation: seven houses in the Mexican city of Culiacan, connected by secret tunnels that also tied in with the city’s sewage system.
When authorities raided one of them, it turned out to be Guzman’s main residence in the town of Culiacan. The time it took Mexican marines to get past the house’s reinforced steel doors was enough to allow Guzman to escape via a hidden hatch under a bathtub, U.S. officials familiar with the search for Guzman told CNN last year.
The nearest safe house was about 3 kilometers (almost 2 miles) away, but thanks to the network of tunnels, Guzman was able to slip out of sight once again.
They nabbed him later as he slept in a beachside hideaway in Mazatlan, a resort city about 200 kilometers (125 miles) away.
‘Super’ smuggling tunnels
In 2013, investigators said they’d uncovered a passageway zigzagging underground between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, that was so sophisticated they called it a “super tunnel.”
The alleged Sinaloa cartel tunnel was 35 feet deep, 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide. It stretched the length of nearly six football fields and had lighting, ventilation and rail system, and it connected two warehouses where prosecutors said they’d seized drugs with a street value of nearly $12 million.
At the time, U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said she had a warning for smugglers behind the tunnel — and others like it:
“If you build them, we’re going find them,” she said, “and if we find them, we’re going to destroy them.”