The tunnel stretched a mile long, from the jailhouse shower to an empty building in a cornfield, and was deep enough for drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to stand upright as he made his escape.
A minor engineering masterpiece, some might say, equipped with ventilation, lighting, oxygen tanks, scaffolding and a motorcycle contraption for removing the tons of dirt being excavated.
Guzman, Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, escaped sometime Saturday night from a maximum-security prison through the clandestine passageway, authorities announced Sunday.
He had often used tunnels, as well as bribes and murder, to stay steps ahead of the law during his last decade on the lam. Yet, after his capture last year, the president of Mexico said losing him again would be “unpardonable.”
It is the second time Guzman, head of the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s largest and most lucrative trafficker of heroin, cocaine and marijuana, has been able to flee jail. The first time was 2001, from a different prison, when he famously hid in a laundry cart, and he remained a fugitive — albeit sometimes a public one — until his arrest last year.
Guzman’s escape is a major embarrassment for the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, which has prided itself for having taken down a string of top cartel leaders.
Authorities launched a massive manhunt late Saturday after discovering Guzman’s disappearance from the Altiplano prison about 50 miles west of the capital. Soldiers occupied Mexico City’s international airport and roadblocks were set up at numerous spots in the area.
The search extended across several states and beyond Mexico’s borders.
More than 30 prison guards and other employees were detained for questioning.
U.S. officials had sought Guzman’s extradition, in part for precisely the fear that he would take advantage of the weak, corrupt Mexican justice system to continue his trafficking business and even, eventually, break out. Several U.S. federal indictments have been filed against Guzman, including one in California, but Mexico had said it wanted to prosecute him first.
The tunnel that Guzman used to flee was sophisticated. It was nearly a mile long and deep enough for him to stand, authorities said. Its opening was a rectangular hole in the former prisoner’s shower, measuring 20 inches by 20 inches. It then descended 30 feet, ran its length under largely unpopulated land and ended in a somewhat isolated house under construction in the nondescript Santa Juanita neighborhood, surrounded by empty fields.
Authorities, attempting to explain how it was possible for such an elaborate construction to have taken place unnoticed, said Guzman’s shower was the only place in his cell where there were no security cameras.
Monte Alejandro Rubido, Mexico’s security commissioner, said Guzman was last seen about 8 p.m. when he reported for medicine. Then he headed off to the shower. After a time, when he never reappeared, the alert was sounded and he couldn’t be found.
“This is something that had been cooking for months,” security expert and former government intelligence officer Alejandro Hope said in a television interview. “It shows the weakness of the entire chain of [Mexico’s] judicial system.”
During his previous stint as a fugitive, Guzman became one of the most powerful drug lords in the world. Forbes magazine once estimated his fortune at more than $1 billion, and he was the stuff of legends.
The Sinaloa cartel expanded its reach throughout much of the U.S., Europe and even Australia. More businesslike than some of the more vicious Mexican cartels, it nevertheless has been deeply involved in the violence that has claimed tens of thousands of lives here in recent years.
Guzman eluded capture easily. He had local officials and even part of the security establishment on his payroll and was repeatedly alerted when operations were launched to find him. He was finally tracked down to an apartment complex facing the ocean in the Sinaloan resort city of Mazatlan. He was there with his latest wife, a former beauty queen, and twin daughters, who were born near Los Angeles in 2011.
When he was captured on Feb. 22, 2014, he put up no resistance, although — apparently aware that authorities were on his trail — he had fled a few days earlier from the state’s capital, Culiacan, through a network of tunnels and sewers. Then, as now, his skill at tunneling came in handy.
The U.S. had offered more than $5 million for his capture.
His nickname, El Chapo, means “shorty,” and comes from his relative small stature; he stands a little under 5 feet 5. He is thought to be 56, although there are discrepancies on his age.
Peña Nieto and his top Cabinet members were in France on an official visit when news came of Guzman’s latest escape. Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong rushed back to Mexico.
In an interview with L.A.-based Mexican reporter Leon Krauze last year, shortly after Guzman’s capture, Peña Nieto vehemently rejected the idea that he could escape again.
It would be more than regrettable, it would be unpardonable that the state and the government not take adequate measures to ensure that what happened years ago not be repeated,” the president said.
From Paris on Sunday, the president said only that the escape was unfortunate and a challenge to the Mexican state.
Graco Ramirez, governor of the nearby state of Morelos, one of many on “red alert” after the escape, said the turn of events was “unjustifiable.”
“Mexico’s penal system is in profound crisis,” Ramirez said.
The U.S. government also weighed in.
“We share the government of Mexico's concern regarding the escape of Joaquin Guzman Loera ‘Chapo’ from a Mexican prison,” U.S. Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch said in a statement, noting the numerous drug-trafficking and organized-crime charges against him in the United States. “The U.S. government stands ready to work with our Mexican partners to provide any assistance that may help support his swift recapture.”
For many here, it strained credulity that such a well-equipped tunnel could be constructed without anyone in authority noticing.
“It was just a matter of time that this señor make a mockery of the government's holding him,” said Arturo Martinez Perez, a 52-year-old schoolteacher mulling over the news. “They never realized he was building a tunnel? Please. They really want us to believe that?”
“It's admirable,” said Fabian Lopez, a 41-year-old merchant. “Shows you who really runs this country.”
Dentist Ernesto Figueroa, 47, suggested with tongue in cheek that Guzman be hired to handle some of Mexico's more troubled construction projects because he'd do a better job.
“What a shower!” Edgardo Buscaglia, who studies global security issues for the United Nations, quipped on his Twitter account.
“There was an enormous act of corruption … and an absolute incompetence” involving prison officials, the intelligence community and law enforcement, said Pablo Monzalvo, a national security researcher at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City.
" Es más chíngon el chapó que el gobierno mexicano"
@NAj. I only disagree with you about the tunnel being a "minor engineering masterpiece" . I think it was a major engineering masterpiece.
I think it is reflective of the reputation that Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel had for being an efficient business model. This escape was obviously well planned and engineered. It was professional, planned down to the last detail. It was not a few thugs from the streets with shovels digging a tunnel or using force and violence to free their leader from prison as we have seen in other prison breaks.
This was planned at least from the time Chapo was incarcerated and probably before that as a contingency plan as any well run business would do. It may have taken most of the 13 months he has been in prison to build it, considering all the work had to be done clandestinely.
Then again, it could have completed for a while and the planners were waiting on an opportune time to carry out their mission. Sat. night is obviously a good day of the week because there are going to be more people (military, police, etc.) less alert while enjoying their weekend with a few beers. Even selecting the month of July may have been planned as the hurricane season has started and there is a greater likelihood of the military and other fed agencies being occupied with hurricane relief.
We know he was last seen entering the shower area about 8PM , but I have seen nothing as to what time they discovered he was missing and when a alert was sounded, so we don't know how much of a head start he had. But here is where a well placed bribe would be very helpful.
You can bet on that with an operation this well planned and executed, the plan did not stop with just getting him past the prison walls, but included getting him to place where risk of capture was minimal.
With his wealth and resources the options there are only limited by ones imagination and are beyond my ability to speculate. (Probably to a country without extradition treaties.)
I don't know where he will actually be, but I predict that very soon the PGR or Military will announce that due to intelligence work conducted by various Mexican agencies (they might even give NSA or DEA some credit) they had located Chapo and he had yelled over the radio that he would not go back to prison. A violent shootout followed and the vehicle Chapo was using in trying to escape caught fire and exploded. The government would announce that all the occupants of the vehicle were incinerated and burned beyond recognition. But enough DNA was obtained from the charred corpse to prove one of the bodies was Chapo.
Or if the government wants to get creative and come up something new, I could be that they report that Chapo was seen by federal agents assigned to the ** airport boarding a private jet bound for the "Happy and Free Islands" (that has no extradition). When the jet did not respond to the towers order to abort takeoff, the Military fighter jets who shot down the private jet carrying Chapo. No bodies were recovered from the ocean.
Getting serious again, this part of my comment is directed at you engineer types out there.
I have been construction manager on a number of buildings. I know there are tools to give you accurate measurement over a distance (lasers, surveying tools, etc.). But most if not all of those are based on "line of sight" measurements and angles. While lasers might be usable to the engineers and architects in daylight or darkness, other instruments that would draw attention could not be used in line of sight tools in the darkness. .
Even with a laser, you could only get the measurements from the house to the prison walls, not to the shower walls inside the prison and that is a big prison.
I don't have experience in building tunnels, but the prospect of being in a hole 30 feet underground (at the house) and told to build a tunnel to a spot directly under the shower room a mile away and then construct a vertical shaft that would emerge no more that a few centimeters from the exterior walls of the shower room would be daunting to say the least. If you were only a 2 or 3 degrees off the true course when you made that first cut, by the time you extended your tunnel a mile, you might come up in the wardens office rather than the prisoner's shower room.
You engineers out there, tell me how to do it.
Words are powerful weapons, be careful how you use them.
The only concept that I can come up with is if someone "visited" the cell ("lawyers", unknown female guest, engineers profiling as lawyers, etc) and they had a laser/gps coordinate locator.
With this equipment they then located the exact four corners of the "shower cut" from the inside of the cell shower.
This would allow the beginning point to come to the final location cut.
In reply to this post by DD
Hey DD. I'll take a stab at it, as I have some experience. To build a tunnel from point A to point B accurately, one needs to know 3 things. You need to know the XYZ co-ordinates of both the starting point and the ending point of the tunnel relative to each other. For all practical purposes, in this case, it's simply a matter of doing some planar trigonometry. The X&Y part refers to the left/right or North/South positions of the end points of the tunnel, relative to each other. The Z component refers to the relative heights/elevations of the XY coordiantes of both ends of the tunnel.
The hardest part, in my mind, is ascertaining where the tunnel is to go to. Altiplano is a big place, and who's to say that Guzman wouldn't get moved to a different cell in the time it took to build the tunnel. I mean, he could have been moved to a cell 5 doors down, or maybe to a different tier. That didn't happen, ni modos.
The only way to make this happen is to know precisely where that tunnel has to end at. This means that the tunnel builders had to have access to the final, 'as built', plans of the prison. Without that, the whole thing is pretty much just a shot in the dark. I know some folks think that GPS might cut the mustard, but to be honest, that's not too realistic. I can't see GPS working very well, if at all, inside a concrete and steel jail cell. Anyway, once the builders know EXACTLY where they want to end up, the first part of the puzzle is complete. They know the XYZ coordinates of the end point of the tunnel.
The second part of this puzzle is where to begin the tunnel. From the builders perspective, this is easy. They picked a place, up on a hill, then bought the land. It was a bonus that there's so much construction going on. With that much work going on, surveyors and their helpers would be everywhere all of the time. Who's going to notice another one or two? With all of that construction, control points (i.e. points with known XY coordinates and elevation data) are pretty easy to access. Once these guys had access to these known survey coordinates, it's pretty simple to figure out where they are (i.e. the start point) relative to where they want to go. At that point, it's just a matter of how far down to dig. Let's say 30 feet.
Once the boys have dug down that 30 feet, the surveyor can hand them a compass and tell them to start digging in 'that direction'. At the start, it doesn't really matter how accurate the tunnel is, just so long as they are going in the right general direction. If it were me, I'd have 'em dig a short distance like a 100' or so, take some measurements, with a theodolite, hand one of them a can o spray paint, have him go back to the end of the tunnel, line him up....have him spray a vertical line dead centre....... and let them loose.
At the end of the day, all the builders of the tunnel needed was a relatively accurate survey instrument (a theodolite) to measure both left/right angles and up/down angles and an EDM of some sort (laser/microwave device to measure distance) or maybe a total station instrument (electronic equivalent of the theodolite/EDM combo). With these instruments the builders could establish the start point of the tunnel and also check to make sure that the tunnel was going in the right direction, it's distance from the start point and that it wasn't going too far up or down along the way.
Thanks for chiming in jay! I know zero about engineering and surveys so this helped me understand tunnel building.
I have worked in prisons, but not super max types. Usually there's a shower per every certain number of cells. Pretty sure chapo was in shu, meaning there was one shower, and each prisoner was escorted to and from the shower, one at a time. Very suspicious that it took two hrs to notice he was missing
. But showers would be the ideal spot for a tunnel!
In reply to this post by TNL
I agree with TNL.... with modern sophisticated GPS systems it is very easy to direct tunnel building these days. Keep in mind, Chapo et al. have built HUNDREDS of tunnels underneath the border to very precise locations, so clearly they have the technology down pat. It could even be done via satellite imagery if in enough detail.
The complication in my mind is how to go vertically up 30 ft to hit the target with the plumbing, piping etc. I can't quite tell from the photos, but it appears that Altiplano is only 1 story high? Not sure, but if so, that would make things easier.
But again, with all their engineering experience, they probably know how to work around building infrastructure to get to their desired location. As-built diagrams of the building infrastructure in the area would of course help immensely! Undoubtedly someone supplied them.
Also, DD, I read yesterday (don't remember which article, but ABC, CBS, WSJ or CNN) that the alarm went off at 12:55... just a little over 2 hrs since he was reportedly last seen. So assuming he jettisoned down the stairs beneath the shower pretty quickly, and that he escaped via the motorcycle to the small helicopter that neighbors report hearing... he was well out of the area by the time the alarm went off. That gave him plenty of time for a good head start.
Gotta love it...
A couple of things I do ponder however... when did they actually "punch through" the floor of the shower? I'm thinking that it was done just before the escape because really, you couldn't take a shower if there was a hole in the floor AND the cleaning crew surely would have noticed a hole cut in the floor tiles. So I'm thinking everything was in place until the time he entered the shower and then the shower floor hole was cut, or it was cut just before. Had to all be timed very accurately, but hey, they had plenty of time to do that.
They said it was aisle 20, shower 2... so it doesn't seem as if the shower was actually in his cell... various reports have said different things. But given that the initial government report said that it was an area where the inmates would take showers AND wash their clothes (which could explain why he took additional time).... I don't think it was in his cell. I think it was in a general shower area. For that reason also, I don't think the floor was cut until just before he fled, or otherwise other people for sure would have seen it. Unless he had bought off the guards and no one else was allowed in shower 2. It is all amazing and I admit I am quite impressed.
I remember when others posted on BB last year that the Altiplano was so secure and basically said there was "no way" he could escape from there. Never say never with Chapo I guess.
Not to argue, but GPS works on Line Of Sight. So far as I'm aware, any GPS system that appears to work indoors, underground etc. either works because of a dead reckoning algorhthim or GPS repeaters or some combination of both. IMHO, this is not going to allow anyone to hit a 20 inch target from a mile away. But, I could be wrong.
If you can post a link to one of these systems that work in the subsurface to mm or cm scale, I'd love to know about it (and so would the oil industry). Thanks!
In reply to this post by katattx
@kattattx No worries. : It's all good. I know a little about surveys and surveying as I did that for ~20 years or so.
In reply to this post by Jay
Sorry Jay, but you are wrong. The oil industry has extremely high tech directional drilling programs that definitely do not rely on "line of sight" but are directed by GPS coordinates. I am a geologist and am well-aware of this technology where multiple wells are sunk from one platform. And the degree to which they can deploy the bit to very thin target horizons 10s of thousands of feet below ground surface using seismic sensors near the drill bit is amazing.
In addition, there is very high tech subsurface piping installation and software that relies on GPS coordinates. Nothing is line of sight any more, well except maybe for purely surface surveying.
Obviously, this tunnel did not require the extremely high tech seismic technology that oil/gas directional drilling at 30,000 ft below the ground surface requires.... this was a relatively simple 30 ft below grade tunnel about a mile long. Trust me it can be done and is done routinely these days. Case in point, Chapos hundreds of tunnels beneath the US/MX border to precise locations NOB!
just use one of these gives you depth and feet following waterlines
This post was updated on .
Well that's interesting Choco. I wasn't aware that they had developed GPS receivers that could detect and operate underground. I'd be most grateful if you could post a link to a website that explains this more fully.
Thanks in advance!
Edit: OFF TOPIC
Here, where I am, in a well bore, directional survey measurements are taken by accelerometers to measure inclination, and magnetometers which measure direction (azimuth). These sensors, as well as any others that measure rock formation density, porosity, pressure or other data, are connected, physically and digitally, to a logic unit which converts the information into binary digits which are then transmitted to surface using mud pulse telemetry and decoded into usable data. Is this the high tech seismic tech you were talking about?
Choco: Thanks for your experienced and authoritative take on Chapo's tunnel. I know a guy in the production of synthetic diamonds for oil drilling equiptment. He agreed with your post on how advanced the mining technology is today.
I'd like to add my two cents, that there are prison personnel deeply involved in the escape. For starters, the maintenance department surely has detailed building prints that include electrical wiring, air conditioning, and plumbing drawings. Certainly, these could be used to precisly build the escape tunnel. Finally, Mexico has thousands of very skilled miners and mining engineers , especially from northern mineral rich states. IMO, the "job" certainly used this home grown talent.
With the "plata o plomo" corruption ethos in Mexico , why should anyone be surprised with Chapo's escape?
This post was updated on .
In reply to this post by deelucky1
lets not think so much!800 workers 43 heavy machinery july 3-5 added 5 huge pipes and fixed 20 existing along the fence
Choco: if you want, have a read through this:
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