“El Chapo”‘s (New) Escape

These days the fonda where I usually eat has been packed with Policía Federal officers. The fonda was designated as one of the official restaurants for the troop sent to Oaxaca to contain those who are opposing a reform that would allow a massive teacher layoff. Los Soles is its name, and it’s located just around the corner from the offices of the Truth Commission where I work, so recently I’ve had casual conversations with officers from every part of the country.

While we wait our turn to taste our meals, I like to ask them if they read the crime novels of Élmer Mendoza, or Paco Ignacio Taibo II, or if they watch police TV series like True Detective, or The Killing. None of those who have talked to me know detectives Mendieta, Belascoarán, Cohle, or Holder; but on the other hand I have not seen The Shield, nor El señor de los cielos, the TV series that they always recommend. We also talk about other things, for example, about what they have had to see in their various missions around the country.

This week I was talking to one of these officers about a historical area of Mexicali, created by Chinese immigrants, known as “La Chinesca,” where there is a series of tunnels and underground passageways that connect various local buildings, and that at some point even extended to the nearby city of Calexico, in the United States.

The first time I heard about this place was in 2008, when I was in Culiacán doing some research for my book El cártel de Sinaloa (Grijalbo, 2009). A veteran member of the organization, who had worked during the reign of Miguel Félix Gallardo, told me that the first important job that Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera had was to smuggle marihuana and cocaine into California through Mexicali in the 80s.

According to that informant, El Chapo reactivated the old tunnels in La Chinesca and thus became one of the most efficient drug smugglers of that era. Some said that El Chapo had worked with unusual patience until he created an authentic narco city underneath Mexicali. I always found this tale about La Chinesca, and the topographical genius that later became one of the biggest drug lords in the world, fascinating and cinematographic.

A few months ago, I was also talking about it with Craig Borten, the screenwriter of Dallas Buyers Club, who is writing one of the many Hollywood scripts about the off-center life of El Chapo.

Nonetheless, the story of La Chinesca is very far from what happened this Saturday, July 11th, when, according to the National Security Commissioner, the most important inmate in the Mexican penitential system entered the shower in a maximum security prison and then descended through some secret stairs until he reached a tunnel where a motorcycle was awaiting, which he then used to cover the whole underground distance of the Penal del Altiplano prison, until he arrived into some sort of basement of a modestly built house, where he was finally able to get our and, for the second time, escape his imprisonment.

According to the official report, the tunnel built is 1.5 kilometers long. To give an idea of the engineering feat that this is, Mexico’s largest urban tunnel is 3.5 kilometers long and is being built by Carlos Slim’s companies in Acapulco, Guerrero.

The first obligation of a journalist is to seek out the official version of whatever is that happened, and the second is to not believe in it, until after having researched and contrasted it with other independent sources. Thus, a permanent challenge of Mexican journalism is figuring out what to do with the official fictions that are produced, mainly, on issues related to the world of the narco (as happened with Tlatlaya, Ayotzinapa, the Tec students…).

But beyond this dilemma, and to add to the awe, we can safely establish that El Chapo left the Penal del Altiplano – by whatever methods – just at the same time president Enrique Peña Nieto and ten secretaries form his cabinet, including those of Government, National Defense and Navy, where flying towards Paris.

It is not a coincidence that this evasion happened at the exact moment in which the main eleven official heads were 9,194 kilometers away. Obviously, the operative reaction to try to recapture El Chapo was more chaotic and complicated by this, which could have given him some time to leave the center of the country faster and arrive to a safe dominion.

This not only speaks about the cleverness of the narco boss and of his political operators, but also about a direct challenge to the frivolity and unkemptness of our country’s administration. It is likely that the Secretary of Government, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, will leave his post after a failure that completely falls under his jurisdiction. But, what will happen with the irresponsible presidential decision to take the whole government to France during almost a week?

The majority of Mexican prisons are ungovernable, or are at least territories where groups of inmates control them as if they were private property. There is the case of the penitentiary of Gómez Palacio, Durango, from where a commando of hitmen got out to execute people in Torreón, Coahuila, and then went back into their cells. Or the one of the municipal jail of Cancún, better known as “Hotel Zeta,” where the gunmen that ended the life of general Enrique Tello were recruited. There is also the case of the jail of Topo Chico in Monterrey, where the recently imprisoned inmates who don’t pay a fee are constantly tortured and get a “Z” tattooed on their butt cheeks.

But, until this weekend, the Altiplano prison was an exception to the rule in this disastrous national statistic.

A few hours after the escape, I phoned Flavio Sosa, social fighter in Oaxaca, who is considered by many human rights organizations to have been the first political prisoner of Felipe Calderón’s government. Sosa participated in a popular revolt and was arrested on December 4th, 2006, and then transferred to the Altiplano prison where, also, he was jailed in the Tratamientos Especiales area, the maximum security zone. There he shared the halls with many drug lords, including Osiel Cárdenas Guillén – before the latter was extradited to the United States. It was there that the inmate Guzmán Loera was imprisoned.

“Do you think somebody can escape the Altiplano without first-level complicities?” I asked him.

“This prison is an unbreakable capsule. And the area where El Chapo was, Tratamientos Especiales, was a capsule inside a capsule. All of the surveillance system must have been relaxed.”

Sosa remembers that in Tratamientos Especiales there were twenty individual cells, divided into two halls. Each one of them is permanently surveilled by video. Inside each cell there is a bunk bed, a cement table and a hole in the ground that is used as a latrine by the inmates, as well as an individual shower, which might discount the version that says that there is a common showering area.

Sosa thinks that the only angle that can be invisible to the camera is the bottom of the bed. He also thinks it is hard to believe that El Chapo would take a shower on a Saturday night, as he says that showers are only permitted at 6 A.M. He also explained to me that there are careful examinations of each cell in this area at least three times a month and that the officers who do it even bang the walls and the floors with a hammer, with the aim of detecting special compartments.

“During one of those tough nights, I thought about how I could get out and I realized that, if I wanted to escape, I would have to agree to it not only with my guards, but also with the other three organisms that are there – the Federales, the jail’s police and a special guard – all of which are under very different bosses, and are usually very distrusting of each other. It was impossible, though it seems in El Chapo’s case, it wasn’t.”

This is what Sosa, who was freed after a year in a half in prison thanks to the social pressure denouncing the unfairness of his arrest, says.

During the time El Chapo was in prison, little was known about the legal process against the Cártel de Sinaloa boss. We only heard anecdotes, like the one from a PAN House member who, it seems, went to visit him, or the one of a letter that he co-signed with other inmates that was addressed to the president of the National Human Rights Commission.

But, in general, the government maintained a suspicious opacity about the enclosure of one of the world’s most persecuted men. Out of those sixteen months he was in jail, now we only know that he escaped. The so-called “arrest of the century” was not followed by a “trial of the century,” in which light could be shed on the political and economical networks used by the boss from Sinaloa to operate. Why?

In the popular reactions in social media, fear and indignation were not the emotions that prevailed after El Chapo’s escape. It seems that his criminal charisma will just increment. Mexico has a plutocrat antihero, whose popularity competes with that of the members of the ruling class.

“The problem is that wherever I go, I realize that people love El Chapo more than Congress members,” said, earnestly, the federal police officer that was talking to me about La Chinesca.

As these and many other questions are answered with time, with my coworkers in Oaxaca we speculate that soon we will be able to eat in Los Soles without having to form a line, because the Secretary of Government (likely by then under the command of Manlio Fabio Beltrones, the Mexican Vladimir Putin) will relocate hundreds of federales who are here, so they can leave the teachers alone and then go look for El Chapo everywhere, even under the earth.

Regarding the cinematographic future of Guzmán Loera, after this second escape, it seems very hard to make an impactful movie based on the “real life” of such a character. The unpunished reality of El Chapo is already a cartoon that has too much literature. Just like the Mexican government has too much corruption.

This article was originally published in the Mexican site / cultural center / caffè-bar Horizontal in Spanish and is translated and republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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Diego Enrique Osorno

Diego Enrique Osorno is a Mexican writer and journalist. In 2009 he published the book El cártel de Sinaloa, a story of how narcos use politics. This fall, Debate will publish his book Slim, a political biography of the world’s richest Mexican. Currently, as a member of the Truth Commission of Oaxaca, he directs the investigation of grave human rights violations.

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