The Cable

This Mexican Drug Lord’s Escape Tunnel Destroys the One in ‘Shawshank Redemption’

A notorious Mexican drug lord wanted by U.S. authorities just escaped prison in a tunnel equipped with a motorcycle.

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In 2001, Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman covered himself in dirty laundry to escape a high-security Mexican prison. Late Saturday he escaped again, this time using a long tunnel under his prison cell’s shower. It was an impressive feat of jailbreaking that serves as a deep embarrassment to Mexican authorities and deals a huge blow to that country’s efforts to staunch a drug war.

Here’s what we know. Guzman, who is head of the Sinaloa Cartel, a sprawling, wealthy, and operatically violent drug operation with tentacles around the world, disappeared from the view of Altiplano maximum-security prison cameras sometime late Saturday. When authorities searched his cell, they found a ladder descending into a 33-foot-deep hole, National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido said Sunday.

At the foot of the ladder was a one-mile-long tunnel, complete with ventilation and lighting systems. But here’s the kicker: Guzman, and whoever helped him escape, installed a motorcycle on a rail system, presumably used to move earth and tools necessary to create the escape route as well as to shuttle Guzman to the tunnel’s exit at a building under construction in central Mexico State.

This is a much greater technological achievement than his first escape. After being arrested in Guatemala in 1993, he escaped a high-security penitentiary in 2001 by slipping out in a laundry cart.

His legend grew after he disappeared. The United States offered a $5 million reward for his capture. In 2013, law enforcement officials in Chicago, a destination for many of Guzman’s drugs, named him “Public Enemy Number One.”

Guzman, who was once so rich he made Forbes’s annual billionaires list, had been in prison for 17 months after eluding Mexican authorities for 13 years. Suspicion immediately fell on guards at the prison, located about 90 miles outside of Mexico City. Eighteen of them are now being interrogated.

Tunnels are routinely used to sneak drugs across the U.S. border. More than 100 have been discovered.

The area surrounding the prison is now on lockdown. Flights at the nearby Toluca airport are grounded as authorities scour the area near the prison in an effort to recapture one of Mexico’s most notorious drug lords, murderers, and kidnappers.

Since 2006, the drug war there is thought to have claimed the lives of more than 80,000. Fighting between Guzman’s cartel and one located in Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, has killed more than 10,000.

His escape is also an embarrassing blow to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Peña Nieto paraded Guzman in front of cameras when he was arrested in 2014 and resisted calls from U.S. law enforcement to extradite him to the United States for trial. With “El Chapo” on the run, whether either country will get the chance to try him for his crimes is now unknown.

Photo Credit: Alfredo Estrella/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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