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Guzmán: The Buried Truth

Guzman - Tunnel.jpg
Marco Ugarte/Associated Press
A Mexican federal police officer inspecting Chapo Guzmán’s escape tunnel, July 16, 2016

On June 25, the United States issued a formal request to the Mexican government for the extradition of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as Chapo, who was being held at Mexico’s highest security prison. On July 11, less than three weeks later, Guzmán Loera released himself from the supposedly impregnable prison in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s home state, by means of a sixty-foot-deep tunnel that had apparently been dug from a half-built house a mile away, directly into the shower of his prison cell. Guzmán, of course, had been transferred to the Almoloya prison immediately after his capture eighteen months earlier, in February 2014, even as the government of Peña Nieto made it clear that its most important trophy in the decades-long war on drugs would not be sent to face charges in the United States, unlike so many other captured drug lords.

As a friend of mine commented, Guzmán’s jailbreak is an unbroken string of punchlines, arguably the greatest pie-in-the-face embarrassment any Mexican government has ever had to deal with, and Mexicans are still riffing compulsively about it. (A startled Bugs Bunny emerges from his hole; “You’ll never guess who I just ran into!”) But as the country’s highest officials in charge of national security tried to recover face over the course of the past week, they failed to come up with answers to quiet the laughter. Serious questions continue to pile up, all of them having to do with whether the Mexican government was more inept or more corrupt in its stewardship of its most notorious prisoner, just how much of the evolving and often contradictory official account is a lie, and ultimately, whether the US extradition request in June triggered Guzmán’s Fantastic Mr. Fox-like disappearance in July. Because if it did, then one has to explain away the existence of the tunnel, which appears to have been under construction for at least a year.

But if one dismisses the extradition-escape theory, more questions arise, because, really, with all the cooperation Guzmán received, and all the money and trickery he must have had to deploy in order to get that tunnel built and precisely choreograph his escape, wouldn’t it have been easier just to stroll out the front door? Did he? Millions of Mexicans believe that there is no such tunnel, that the few feet that reporters have been allowed to inspect, at the entry point in Guzmán’s prison shower and at the exit hatch a mile away, are a sham. (Citing safety concerns, the government has not allowed the press or members of Congress to traverse the construction’s entire length.)

According to this theory, Guzmán turned himself in voluntarily last year after the government—fearful of what Chapo might tell about his high-level connections in Mexico— agreed not to extradite him. This would also explain the government’s strange initial reluctance to accept loudly-proferred US assistance after Guzmán vanished. This is conspiracy delirium of the highest order, but given the government’s utter failure to account for the many questions surrounding his escape, it’s been as good an explanation as any.

Now that anyone who is following the story feels that no news break could top what we have seen this past week, the unusually well-sourced and serious weekly magazine Proceso has come out with a breathtaking new version of what happened in its July 19 issue. According to the magazine, Chapo really was taken prisoner unawares last year in his home state of Sinaloa, but not by Mexican security forces. Instead, he was arrested by DEA agents and US marshals disguised as Mexican marines. This information comes from two unnamed and uncharacterized US sources who spoke to a Proceso reporter in Washington, DC. According to the sources, US intelligence had been successfully tracking Guzmán during the first three weeks of February 2014, thanks to a combination of satellite surveillance and information provided by his associates. On the night of February 22, when Guzmán checked into a quiet beachfront hotel in the resort city of Mazatlán, and had his wife and twin daughters join him, the agents told Proceso they were able to pinpoint the room their intended prey was in.

According to Proceso, the US agents notified no one that they were about to arrest Guzmán, except for two Mexican Marines they needed but didn’t quite trust. (The US agents did not provide the marines with details of the operation until they were at the hotel door.) It isn’t clear where, or with whose approval, the agents got the uniforms and three armored cars they used that night, but no government official in Mexico City was notified of the operation—“neither in the Attorney General’s Office nor in the Interior Ministry,” Proceso quotes one of the US officials as saying. “We were afraid that the information would be leaked and as on other occasions the plans would come to nothing,” according to someone identified by the magazine as “one of the officials of the Obama Administration.”

It wasn’t until the helicopter carrying Guzmán to Mexico City was in the air that the US agents “notified the highest levels of the Mexican government of the capture of the Sinaloa capo,” Proceso quotes the officials as saying. When the disguised agents removed their ski masks on landing, the waiting members of the Peña Nieto administration were shocked to see that they were not Mexicans. The episode did not end well for diplomacy; “Our agents shared [the information they had] with [then Mexican Attorney General Jesús] Murillo Karam, but that gentleman, with his anti-Americanism” refused to approve extradition, the Proceso article concludes.

So an alternative theory about the events linking Guzmán’s arrest and his escape might run as follows: consumed by frustration at the drug trafficker’s escape, and with wounded pride after months of hiding their own achievement in nabbing him to begin with, US law enforcement employees decided last week to tell their version of Chapo Guzmán’s arrest, in which a US special team was solely responsible. Even the ultimate pragmatist Enrique Peña Nieto was outraged at such a violation of national sovereignty and refused to turn over the high value captive to the United States.

Instead, Guzmán was rescinded to the Altiplano Center for Social Rehabilitation No. 1, or Almoloya prison, as it is better known. Guzmán’s allies started plotting his escape within weeks of his detention. DEA officials quickly got wind of this, though they did not have information about the July 11 escape plan; and for combined reasons of corruption and still-simmering fury over the offense to Mexico’s sovereignty, law-enforcement officials ignored the DEA’s anxious reports. The US attorney general’s office then decided to push matters by filing an official request for Guzman’s extradition; Guzmán got wind of the request and decided it was time to go, whatever means he may have used to do so.

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Manuel Velasquez/STR/Getty Images
The prison cell and shower containing the hole through which Joaquín Guzmán allegedly escaped, July 15, 2015

Amid all the clashing versions, at least there might really be a tunnel. I asked a construction engineer who designs foundations for tall buildings whether it was possible to build a mile-long, sixty-foot-deep, unreinforced burrow with a ninety-degree access at either end and he said it was. The problem, he thought, was how to emerge at the exact point of someone’s twenty-five-inch-square shower, particularly if you are digging from only one end (no GPS will work that far underground, the engineer thinks.) “But they’ve done it before,” he pointed out: Guzmán’s engineers and diggers have built any number of underground railways designed to ferry drugs from a safe house in Mexico to a safehouse on the other side of the border.

The most obvious questions being asked by reporters, members of the opposition, and ordinary Mexicans have to do with the prison cell from which Guzmán departed. The government has released three videos to support its version of the escape. The first video, which lasts ninety seconds, shows a man identified as Guzmán in his cell at 8:50 PM on July 11: this person crouches behind a waist-high shower partition, stands up, walks back and forth, returns to the concrete prison cot to put on shoes, strides quickly behind the partition again, and, at 8:52 PM, disappears behind it as if he were climbing down a flight of stairs. A second video shows the shower area behind the partition, with a twenty-inch-square slab of concrete cut out of the floor. Beneath that is an eighteen-meter-deep vertical equipped with a ladder. Finally, a third video purports to shows the beginning of the mile-long horizontal stretch of the tunnel proper: a cheap motorbike sits between two rails in an approximately thirty-inch-wide muddy vault that appears to have been excavated by hand. In photos, we had already seen the tunnel’s exit; a ground-level hatch inside a cinder block house leads to an underground machine room with an electrically-powered pulley and the start of the tunnel. Considering that the entire thing was built in secret and by hand, it is an astonishing feat of engineering.

After Guzmán’s arrest eighteen months ago, we were told that Almoloya had three-foot walls and restricted communications; that the prisoner was confined to a windowless cell equipped with a twenty-four-hour video camera; that he was taken to a patio for an hour of solitary exercise every day and allowed family visits only once a month, each visit contingent on a judge’s specific approval. And given Guzmán’s successful previous escape from a maximum-security prison back in 2001—President Enrique Peña Nieto also swore that, this time, he himself would check in personally with his Interior Minister every day to make sure Guzmán stayed put.

But anyone can see by looking at the first ninety-second video, showing Guzmán’s last moments in jail, that there were bars, not reinforced metal, at the entrance to his cell. This would presumably have allowed him to communicate easily by yelling, or singing, or tapping, with other prisoners. There was, in fact, a window in the cell too, albeit above eye level. A humanitarian “privacy blind spot,” that supposedly shielded the sink, shower, and toilet from the surveillance camera’s view, was nonexistent. The sink and toilet were in full, humiliating sight of the camera eye, although there was a waist-high wall—also installed for humanitarian reasons, the government alleged—covering the lower half of the shower and intended to preserve the prisoner’s modesty. It is behind this wall that Guzmán crouched in order to access the tunnel.

Reporters who were allowed into Almoloya prison on Wednesday reported that security was indeed very tight; there were thirteen locks to go through, numerous security checks, guards everywhere. There are regular overflights. An army regiment less than a mile away monitors the surrounding area. But none of these measures protect against an underground escape. An architect friend of mine with more than three decades of building experience looked at the video of the shower stall and noted that the chunk of concrete that formed the lid to the tunnel, and the concrete floor it was removed from, showed no sign of either reinforcing wire mesh or construction rods. Nor was the floor particularly thick: about a foot down from the shower drain, the soil starts; it’s hardly conceivable that an entire prison would have been built on such a flimsy foundation. “It’s as if Guzmán’s cell had been built especially so one could tunnel right to it,’ my friend said. In addition, the incline of the concrete lid to the tunnel would indicate that it was carved from inside the cell, not from underneath—an extremely noisy and dusty process. Reporters allowed into the cell on Wednesday noted that Guzmán’s block of twenty cells also housed seventeen of the most prominent drug clan leaders captured so far, all of them among Chapo Guzmán’s sworn enemies.

For example, Guzmán’s immediate neighbor was David Cárdenas Guillén; he is a leader of the self-styled Cartel del Golfo, which fought a bitter, bloody turf war with Guzmán and his allies. Cárdenas claimed to have heard no noise of any kind from the neighboring cell—ever. But if Guzmán was noisily digging an escape hole just on the other side of the wall, it hardly makes sense that Cárdenas and the rest of his blood enemies would not have noticed and denounced him. “You could even speculate that the people who helped him flee transferred him at the last minute from some other part of the prison to the cell in the video,” my architect friend said.

More questions: what were the two glowing rectangles lying face-up—the iPad-shaped one on a concrete bench and the smartphone-shaped one on a concrete desk in the prisoner’s cell? And was that even really Guzmán’s cell? If he had the money to pay for the tunnel and corresponding bribes, and had such command of the prison, would he be likely to settle for a bare-bones residence? During his previous, nine-year, stay in a high-security prison, Guzmán had a suite of cells, a kitchen, gadgets galore, regular visits from the women in his life and from others who were paid to join him temporarily. After his second arrest he reportedly told prosecutors that the whole story of his first escape from prison in a laundry cart was nonsense. “I walked out the front door,” he said proudly.

These are among the mysteries that the surveillance camera video would no doubt help solve. One would like to see, for example, the tape of the forty-eight hours prior to the ninety-second clip released by the government. Instead, Monte Alejandro Rubido, the Interior Ministry’s Commissioner for National Security, promised to determine the precise width of an escape tunnel we already know to be between 27 and 31 inches across.

While the interior ministry took soil samples from the tunnel and finished measuring its width, and hundreds of police whizzed up and down the highways of central Mexico, sirens flashing, the president chose an audience of businessmen on Friday for his first substantive remarks about the disaster his government is mired in. “The only way to reverse this affront,” Peña Nieto said, hair and suit impeccable as always, “is undoubtedly to recapture this delinquent…and ensure that those who might eventually have incurred in some act of complicity, should be punished with all the weight of the law.”