Since his arrest last month, many tales have surfaced about the notorious Sinaloa cartel leader. The most commonly told, though, may be a tall one.
Until he was captured on Feb. 22, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, was the world’s most wanted drug trafficker, presiding for 13 years over the largest organized crime syndicate in the Americas. He is a legend in Mexico, a symbol of the violence of the cartel wars, the wealth of the drug trade, and the impunity of crime in Mexico.
Many news stories about his bloodless capture and incarceration inevitably include mention of his celebrated 2001 escape from Mexico’s Puente Grande maximum security prison in a laundry cart. The yarn has become emblematic of Guzman’s ingenuity and boldness. Never mind that it almost certainly never happened.
The tale first emerged from one of El Chapo’s loyal henchmen during the worst of the public fallout right after the escape. He turned himself in and confessed to a judge that he trundled the drug lord out of prison in a laundry cart. His story implicated the lowest-ranking staff in the prison, and was endorsed by the administration of the new president and repeated again and again by the television networks. But investigative journalist Anabel Hernandez exhaustively debunked the tale in her book Narcoland. Guzman, after all, was locked up in a supermax prison equipped with heat and motion sensors so sensitive that a creature as small as a cat hidden in a laundry cart would have set off the alarms. A grown man hiding under a pile of bedsheets did not stand a chance. Security cameras and hidden microphones, mounted throughout the prison and monitored 24 hours a day by the federal spy agency from a control room, show Guzman entering the sick bay of the prison around the time he was supposedly being trundled out of the prison. Surely some expert in the design of the prison could have put the laundry cart fable to bed in short order, as a point of professional pride. But alas, the two foremost experts on the design of Puente Grande were shot and killed in the two months before Guzman’s escape. And why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
The story of Guzman’s escape, as recounted by Hernandez, is not a prison caper but a political thriller. It is All the President’s Men and the whispered warning from Deep Throat (“The list of the people involved is longer than anyone can imagine”). Start with the housecleaning of the federal prisons bureau at the eleventh hour of an outgoing presidential administration: The new directors of the prison system appointed a new warden who, in turn, hired new commanders. Whistle-blowers on the prison staff reported that under the new leadership, the Sinaloa Cartel capos were given the run of the prison and anything goes: cocaine, liquor, prostitutes, Viagra, live music, restaurant food. The guards took money and the narcos used them like valets. On the afternoon of Guzman’s escape, he met in his cell with three of the prison’s commanders and the prison doctor. A tall sheet of plywood was installed that blocked any view to the inside of his cell from the security cameras. Guzman was last seen on prison video footage just before lights-out, milling about near the prison sick bay with two bodyguards. At 11 p.m., the warden received a report that the drug lord was not in his cell. At 1 a.m., the deputy secretary was notified. At 7 a.m., a SWAT unit of federal police stormed the prison, displaced prison guards from the entrances and exits, and ordered all monitors to evacuate the control room.
The SWAT officers assigned to the medical area found El Chapo and handed him a uniform, balaclava, and riot helmet. When the alert was lifted and the commando unit withdrew from the prison, Guzman absconded with them, without need for any laundry cart.
Some of the public officials most under suspicion of colluding with El Chapo have gone on record that he had help from the prison administration. But to argue that the biggest prison break in Mexican history boils down to one man’s derring-do and a number of prison guards paid to look the other way sounds too incredible to be true, and for good reason.