Let’s make sure we have this right.
The world’s biggest drug lord strolls out of a maximum-security prison.
Forget all the caricatures you have about Mexican drug kingpins. Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman Loera, boss of the dominant Sinaloa Cartel, is a brilliant, ruthless billionaire businessman whose business happens to be drugs. He’s a survivor — he came up the hard way in the 1980s as a gunman for Federacion founder Miguel Angel Gallardo, he survived the Drug Enforcement Administration onslaught after its agent Enrique Camarena was murdered, he endured a bloody war against his rivals in Tijuana, and he came out of a brutal Mexican prison to become the most powerful drug lord in history.
I’ve been tracking Chapo’s career for over 15 years, first writing a fictional version of him in “The Power of the Dog,” and most recently about his 2001 escape from prison in “The Cartel.” The weekend’s events have the feeling of fiction becoming reality.
The first time Chapo went into prison in 1993, he served almost eight years of a 20-year sentence before “escaping” — supposedly in a laundry cart, more probably by car or helicopter — after turning Puente Grande maximum-security prison into the Four Seasons, replete with movie nights, imported hookers, gourmet meals, fine wine and Christmas parties. This time, Chapo waited for a little over a year before “escaping,” supposedly from a shower — either in his cell or a “shower area” into a tunnel, and then onto a motorcycle custom-fit to run on rails.
I have no doubt there was a tunnel, but I have real doubt that Chapo went out it. At least unassisted. If it was a shower area, what did he do — stand in the spray, point and yell “Look over there!” to the guards, lift a grate and disappear while no one noticed that a convict who had once been the most wanted man in the world (after Osama bin Laden) was missing? Alternatively, what was an inmate in a maximum-security prison doing with a shower in his cell? (Then again, if it was like his previous institutional accommodations, it was a suite with a bedroom, a bathroom and a refrigerator truck full of gourmet food.)
Are we expected to believe that a 1.5-kilometer tunnel with lighting, ventilation and tracks was dug under a maximum-security prison and no one saw or heard anything?
Chapo’s 2001 “escape” allegedly cost him $2.5 million, according to Malcolm Beith’s book, “Last Narco.” I imagine prices have gone up since then, but money is not Chapo’s problem in life. He has billions of dollars, vast power and the ability to reach anyone.
Not ‘The Shawshank Redemption’
This wasn’t “The Count of Monte Cristo” or “The Shawshank Redemption.” Don’t think of Chapo patiently laboring for years with a pickaxe to dig his way out of Altiplano prison. If he went out that tunnel, it was with an armed escort, most likely a mix of prison guards and his own people, if the past is prologue. My bet is that he went out the front gate and the tunnel was a tissue-thin face-saving device for Mexican officials, the motorcycle a dramatic improvement over the laundry cart. Some informed speculation has him leaving in a helicopter, as I imagined in “The Cartel.”
If this departure was like the last one, Chapo didn’t “escape.” He checked out of the hotel and paid the bill with bribery, intimidation and blackmail. Chapo could tell some stories about deliveries of cash to high-ranking Mexican officials, men who would prefer him to be on the run in the mountains of Sinaloa or Durango rather than naming names to U.S. federal prosecutors.
This is where the high-level corruption comes in.
The drug lords’ biggest fear
What Mexican drug lords fear more than anything else is extradition to the United States, which indicts them under “kingpin statutes” and almost invariably succeeds in getting convictions with sentences of 15 years to life.
They serve those sentences in real maximum-security prisons, grim cages from which they’re taken out under heavy guard one hour a day for exercise and three times a week for a shower, sans tunnel privileges.
While drug lords have often maintained control of their organizations from Mexican prisons, they can’t do that once they’re sent to American supermax facilities, from which they can’t easily communicate and from which not a single major criminal has ever escaped.
Which is why Mexican drug lords fight extradition to the death, because they know that once they cross that border in shackles, it’s over. Chapo Guzman has been under U.S. indictment since 1987; imprisoned in Mexico twice, but never extradited.
You know who does get extradited?
Like former Gulf Cartel boss Osiel Cardenas and the Tijuana Cartel’s Benjamin Arellano Felix. They were on the fast track to cells in Texas and Colorado because U.S. prosecutors, the Mexican government and Chapo Guzman wanted them there.
Who now controls the Gulf and Tijuana?
Chapo Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel.
Chapo has the power, connections and influence to get his rivals sent to purgatory in America while using that same leverage to keep himself in Mexico until he can “escape.”
He was going to cut a deal with someone — either with Mexican officials to block or delay his extradition or, failing that, with American prosecutors to drop a dime on his former Mexican associates in the government.
It now appears that he took Door No. 1.
Mexico is a beautiful country with wonderful people who sadly have never had a government worthy of them. The systemic corruption on all levels is now so deep and wide that it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the country has become a narco-state.
The Sinaloa Cartel’s dominance
But there’s another possible factor beyond just economic corruption behind the apparent ease of Chapo’s most recent “escape.”
It has long been a theory among journalists who write about the cartels that the Mexican government favored the Sinaloa Cartel in the war between the various drug trafficking organizations. Not only were government and police officials believed to be in the cartel’s pocket, but they have also long viewed Chapo and his partner, Ismael “Mayo” Zambada Garcia, as the most reasonable of the cartel leaders. Admittedly this is not a high bar to jump, but compared with the hyper-violent Zetas or the murderous Tijuana, Juarez and Gulf cartels, the government has seen the Sinaloans as the “least worst” of the given options. Chapo and his people have doubtless been guilty of mass killings, but they have also been known to cooperate with the government to shut down kidnapping, human trafficking and extortion.
The theory goes that the Mexican government decided to “pick a winner,” and it chose the Sinaloa Cartel. The small number of arrests and seizures of Sinaloans, compared with the other cartels, strongly supports that theory. The much-trumpeted capture of Chapo Guzman argues against it, but not if the fix was in for Chapo to depart after little more than year.
The Sinaloans — again, quite possibly with the help of the government — have emerged victorious in the cartel wars, and a relative peace has settled onto Mexico after the hideous violence that took at least 100,000 lives.
The Mexican government is understandably desperate to preserve this “Pax Narcotica Sinaloa,” but drug-related killings are on the rise again in Tijuana, and a violent, relatively young organization, the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, is challenging for power. It’s possible that Chapo Guzman, with his influence and prestige, is more useful to the government on the outside than behind bars.
Whatever the case, Chapo is out.
It’s a shame, because this “escape” will only add to his reputation as a Robin Hood-like folk hero — songs will be written and sung, kids will listen to them and aspire to be the next Chapo Guzman.
The man is no Robin Hood — he’s a mass murderer.
The last time that Chapo “escaped,” his effort to put his empire back together touched off a decade-long war that caused untold suffering, left thousands of orphans, shattered communities and destroyed souls.
There’s no light at the end of that tunnel.
In fact, there’s no end to the tunnel at all.
Don Winslow is the author of 19 books, including New York Times best-sellers and the recently published The Cartel. He won the Raymond Chandler Award in 2012. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.