The prison guards have been keeping a watchful eye on an inmate stalking his cell. But suddenly, something doesn’t seem right. They approach to take a closer look, only to discover the unbelievable truth. A tunnel has opened up right under their noses… and their most infamous prisoner has disappeared into the night.
On July 11, 2015, guards at the maximum-security Federal Social Readaptation Center No.1 in Almoloya de Juárez, Mexico, were observing the prisoner on CCTV. When he failed to reemerge from the concealed shower area of his cell, they went to investigate further.
Unbelievably, the prisoner was gone. Guards found an empty cell and a hole in the shower floor where a square of concrete had been removed. Inside the hole was a ladder descending 33 feet into the ground. And at the bottom was a man-made tunnel just 5 feet, 7 inches high and 30 inches wide.
Clearly, the tunnel had taken some time to build. It was, in fact, equipped with a ventilation system and lighting, not to mention a customized motorcycle attached to a pair of carts on rails.
Investigators believe the prisoner either hitched a ride on the motorcycle or that he climbed inside one of the carts and traveled down the rails. Either way, there was no sign of him by the time the authorities discovered the tunnel.
Amazingly, the tunnel wound its way underground for almost a mile before resurfacing in a basement below a construction site. The prison immediately went into lockdown, but by then the damage had already been done.
For guards at the allegedly impenetrable prison, known as Altiplano, the whole affair was a disaster. Because the inmate who had successfully escaped was no ordinary prisoner. He was, in fact, the notorious drug lord Joaquín Guzmán – also known as El Chapo. So naturally, the international media went wild.
Born in Sinaloa in northwest Mexico some time in the 1950s, Guzmán began growing marijuana to support his family at just 15 years old. His uncle, Pedro Avilés Pérez, was among the first of the Mexican drug lords, and he made a career from smuggling marijuana into the U.S.
Through his uncle’s connections, Guzmán joined the world of organized crime. His ambition, coupled with his ruthless nature, saw him rise quickly through the ranks. Indeed, by 1989 he was in charge of his own cartel.
Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel used a variety of methods to smuggle illegal drugs such as cocaine and marijuana into the U.S. By the time he made it onto the authorities’ radars, Guzmán was thought to have smuggled thousands of kilograms and netted around $1.5 million.
However, when rising tensions between Guzmán’s cartel and the Tijuana Cartel led to the accidental shooting of the Cardinal and Archbishop of Guadalajara, the Mexican government stepped up its game. It launched a manhunt for Guzmán and plastered his face around the country, advertising a $5 million bounty.
On June 9, 1993, Guzmán was arrested in Tapachula, Mexico, while trying to escape to a new life in Guatemala. He was subsequently charged with drug trafficking, among other offenses, and given a jail sentence of 20 years and nine months.
However, prison didn’t seem to pose too much of a problem for Guzmán. Seemingly, he bribed guards in order to enjoy a very comfortable life inside and apparently even hosted Christmas parties for his family while he was locked up.
Nonetheless, Guzmán craved freedom, it seemed. On January 19, 2001, while facing extradition to the U.S., the prisoner made a daring escape. Having bribed officials to assist him, he hid inside a laundry cart and rolled out of the prison doors.
For the next 13 years, Guzmán continued to run his empire while hiding in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains. Then, on February 22, 2014, he was recaptured and sent to Altiplano, where authorities must have believed that they could finally keep him under lock and key.
Unbelievably, however, Guzmán managed to escape for a second time. It’s thought that his collaborators used mining equipment to dig a tunnel underneath the prison to Guzmán’s cell, and many people suspect that several prison officials must have known about its construction.
In order to hide the tunnel from prying eyes, Guzmán’s collaborators used the disguise of a nearby house that was under construction. A neighbor reported having seen workers carrying dirt out of the property for many months after the building appeared to have been finished.
This time, however, Guzmán was not on the run for long. Just six months after his escape, police discovered him hiding in Los Mochis, a city in Sinaloa. Although he initially managed to flee via another secret tunnel, he was eventually captured and returned to Altiplano.
Although Guzmán did manage to escape the prison a final time before being recaptured, there are unlikely to be celebrations for the Sinaloa Cartel. On January 19, 2017, Guzmán left Altiplano for the U.S., finally extradited and on trial for a long list of crimes.
The extradition is thought by some to be a goodwill gift from Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto to mark the inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States. Whatever the outcome of Guzmán’s stateside trial, it’s likely that authorities will be keeping a close eye on this particularly wily prisoner.