News World News

Saturday 17 March 2018

Jail cell pictures show drug lord El Chapo's escape tunnel

The shower area where drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman slipped into a tunnel to escape from his maximum-security prison cell (AP)
The shower area where drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman slipped into a tunnel to escape from his maximum-security prison cell (AP)

Mexico's government has put on show the deep, sophisticated tunnel that led the country's most wanted drug baron to freedom from his maximum-security prison cell.

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa cartel, whose illicit drug trafficking reach includes Europe and Asia, paced his cell at the prison west of Mexico City, first to the toilet, then the shower, then the bed.

At every turn around the tiny room he checked the shower floor, hidden by a half wall because even jailed criminals get their privacy.

In his final sweep, Guzman sat on his bed and took off his shoes. Then he walked back to the shower, stooped behind the wall and disappeared, marking the beginning of an escape odyssey straight out of the pages of fiction.

He was housed in cell 20 in the Altiplano prison's highest security wing below ground level. Twenty-two steel doors, most opening only when the previous one is closed, stood between him and the outside. So he chose another exit.

The square of concrete in his shower appeared to have been punched out, rather than cut or chiselled. It was relatively thin, just three or four inches thick. It did not include reinforcing steel bars, but rather some thin wire.

Speaking outside the warehouse where the tunnel exited, Senator Alejandro Encinas criticised the prison's building standards.

"I was in charge of the construction of two prisons in the federal district and that is not how you do it," he said.

The government has maintained that the prison meets the highest international security standards.

Video released by the authorities showing Guzman's final moments in his cell and journalists' climb into the tunnel put real dimensions to a high-tech engineering feat three storeys underground, where planners and builders managed to burrow through dirt and rock right to the one spot in Guzman's cell that surveillance cameras could not see.

Mexico's security commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said up to the moment Guzman disappeared, his pacing was considered normal for someone who lives in about five square meters (60 sq ft) with only an hour a day outside for exercise.

But there was nothing usual after he lifted a slab of concrete shower floor and descended into a warm and humid man-made underworld, where a motorcycle rigged to two carts on rails waited to whisk him away.

Guzman either rode on the bike or in one of the carts for a mile in the dirt tunnel built just high enough for a man called "Shorty" to stand without hitting his head.

When he reached the other end, he climbed a wooden ladder through a large, wood-framed shaft with a winch overhead that had been used to drop construction supplies into the tunnel. After pulling himself up 17 rungs, he reached a small basement, where a blue power generator the size of a compact car provided the electricity to illuminate and pump oxygen into the underground escape route.

From there, Guzman walked to a shorter ladder and climbed three steps as the air thinned and the temperature dropped 10 degrees. As Guzman's head poked above the dirt floor, he climbed three more rungs to stand inside the unfinished bodega built to hide the elaborate scheme.

Digging crews had discarded 4x4in wooden beams, 8ft tall coils of steel mesh, gallons of hydraulic fluid, 10ft lengths of PVC pipe and an electric disc saw. A battered wheelbarrow full of fine grey soil sat just above the opening in the floor.

A couple of improvised wooden tables and a wooden bench rounded out the bodega's furniture, along with shelves of assorted drill bits, a circular wood saw blade, a jar of liquid cement for pipe joining and a bottle of motor oil.

Seven more strides and the man who Mexico's government said could not possibly repeat his 2001 prison escape stepped through a sliding steel door into the chilly night on a high plain west of the capital.

For the first time since his latest capture on February 22 last year, Guzman was free.

It was no slapdash project. It appeared no expense was spared, though working quickly was the priority.

A tunnel of such sophistication would normally take 18 months to two years to complete, said Jim Dinkins, former head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's homeland security investigations. But Guzman was behind bars barely 16 months.

"When it's for the boss, you probably put that on high speed," Mr Dinkins said.

Meanwhile Mexico's interior ministry says it has distributed 100,000 photographs of Guzman to road toll booths around the country.

It says 10,000 federal police agents remain on high alert across Mexico and authorities have set up 101 checkpoints on major highways.

Hospitals, hotels and undertakers are being checked, 48 dog teams are searching passenger and cargo vehicles and airports are closely reviewing passengers on private planes.

Press Association

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News