As the government’s story goes, on Jan 19, 2001, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman snuck out of a maximum-security prison in Mexico the first time around by hiding in a laundry cart. It was a cartoonishly sounding escape for a drug cartel leader considered one of the most dangerous men in the world.
But what most likely happened, experts on the subject say, is that Guzman’s first major prison break occurred through the front, dressed as a police officer. It happened with the total backing of the prison itself, from the warden on down.
On Tuesday night, Mexico released video footage of the moment that Chapo made his second implausible escape. In it, a man dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt is seen pacing in a cell, then putting on shoes, then ducking below a waist-high barrier of the shower stall in his cell. The time stamp on the video reads 8:52. After that, the man is not seen again.
Although Guzman is well-know for his cartel’s use tunnels to traffic drugs across the US-Mexico border, questions and doubts about the tunnel escape have bubbled up since almost the moment the jailbreak became news.
Some people are still saying they don’t entirely believe the government’s story: “El Chapo” had workers build a secret tunnel more than 30 feet deep and rode a motorcycle on a one-mile track while smashing lightbulbs in his wake to blind any chasers.
The tunnel may have been under construction from the time that Chapo was jailed at Altiplano, but it would have been impossible not to notice the approximately 3.2 tons of dirt and rock required to dig out without being noticed, engineers who made the calculation told newspapers here.
Plus, the escape house sits between the Altiplano prison and a Mexican army base — both of which have security towers — and near a State of Mexico police academy. At the time, a constant additional security perimeter composed of federal police and soldiers should have also noticed Guzman fleeing.
Still others noted that Chapo is shown with his head shaved in an undated headshot the government released of him, while the closed-circuit footage shows the man escaping with a full head of hair.
Three days since the jailbreak, authorities have admitted that Chapo and his allies probably bought off guards and prison officials at Altiplano. But Mexicans swapping rumors and theories on social media say they believe the corruption rooted in Guzman’s vast drug empire of influence must have reached higher levels in Mexico’s government.
In that sense, “El Chapo” — although he was captured again in February 2014, taken in handcuffs, and put behind bars — “was never in really in custody,” investigative reporter Anabel Hernandez declared on Radio Formula in Mexico on Tuesday.
Given how it really went down in 2001, others argue, the Guzman tunnel story could be all just a charade.
According to Hernandez’s book Narcoland, Guzman’s body inside a laundry cart would have triggered heat sensors at the security checkpoints inside the Puente Grande prison in Jalisco. He escaped through the gates dressed as a police agent, she writes, after gathering testimony and examining Guzman’s case file.
“This prison has sensors everywhere, and automatic doors. It wasn’t possible,” Hernandez told VICE in a 2013 interview.
This time, the public shouldn’t discount the possibility that Guzman escaped “through the front” and that “one person or more helped him,” journalist and author Jesus Lemus told VICE News.
Lemus is a reporter who served time in Puente Grande between 2008 and 2011 on false charges of criminal association, but got released after authorities realized they had the wrong suspect. During his time behind bars, Lemus interviewed prisoners and guards about Chapo’s first escape, years earlier.
“He escaped through the front door, he left disguised as a federal policeman. The prisoners that stayed behind identified him for his eyes and height, and also because he had paid them some favors,” Lemus told VICE News.
“El Chapo is a person that bought loyalties and who knows how to create them. I don’t believe that he escaped through a tunnel. It would be like disregarding his criminal capacity, and he likes to innovate,” the author said. “I’ve been in those prisons and they have at least two meters of reinforced concrete underneath.”
Authorities on Tuesday permitted news photographers to enter the house where the prison tunnel ended and film just above the opening to a deep shaft where authorities say Guzman used a motorcycle to ride the one mile from the Altiplano prison.
News cameras also filmed inside cell 20. Along with the release of the footage inside Guzman’s cell, Mexican authorities are attempting to silence any further uproar over Chapo’s escape.
Interior Minister Miguel Osorio Chong defended the government’s handling of the case so far on Monday night, saying that Mexico’s federal penitentiaries have equal security standards to those of the United States.
“The prison has perimeter barriers, pedestrian and vehicle checkpoints, internal and external security towers, in addition to 26 security filters,” Osorio Chong said. “For more than a year a half, there has been an additional surveillance operation by the federal police and the army at the exterior of this prison.”
Three prison officials including the warden have been fired. At least 53 others have been questioned in connection to the Chapo jailbreak, including prison employees, inmates, and two of Guzman’s lawyers.
Osorio Chong said any government employees who are proven to have aided Chapo’s escape were “disloyal” and committed “betrayal” against the security forces that captured Guzman in Mazatlan last year, “risking their lives.”
But Mexico got a warning. United States anti-drug agents reportedly told Mexican officials that they had gathered murmurs of Chapo seeking an escape from Altiplano as soon as one month after his arrest. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in Los Angeles and Houston said a prison break was probably in the works, an AP report said. Osorio Chong denied the Mexican government had any such knowledge.
“My colleagues at the DEA received a report in which various plans for an escape were detailed, but that was months ago, and we thought that they were doing something about it,” an ex-DEA agent, Gilberto Gonzalez, told VICE News in an interview this week. “But now we see they didn’t.”
“It’s very disappointing for my colleagues who participated in his arrest, because they feel they risked their lives for nothing,” Gonzalez added.
Jose Luis Montenegro, author of a recent book on Chapo’s sons called “Narcojuniors,” pointed out that attorneys have filed appeals to prevent any extradition of Chapo to the US from going forward. While on the inside, Guzman and other inmates complained of prison conditions to the national human rights commission, sparking an investigation that turned up nothing.
All of this may have worked to stall for time so that Chapo’s tunnel could be built — for actual use or not, Montenegro told VICE News.
“This looks more like complicity than a government omission,” he said. “Just like in 2001, you co-opt the authorities, through bribes and threats, and then use your own people, like now.”
Montenegro monitors social-media accounts linked to several of Chapo’s sons and associates. Those accounts are not unverified. They’ve also remained largely silent since Chapo escaped.
The author said geo-localization and links between the accounts themselves give him confidence it was Ivan Archivaldo Guzman Salazar, one of three sons from Chapo’s first marriage, who tweeted on July 6: “Everything comes to those who know how to wait.”
Five days later, his father broke free from prison.