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Chapo’s Return to Prison: The Hunt, the Biopic, and a Weakness for Tunnels

The drug lord is back in the same maximum-security prison from which he escaped in July after a spectacular arrest that reads like a screenplay, though the ending presumably differs from the biopic the Mexican authorities say he was planning.

by Jo Tuckman
Jan 9 2016, 8:40pm

Photo by Rebecca Blackwell/AP

Drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán woke up this Saturday in maximum-security prison — the same prison in central Mexico from which he escaped in July thanks to a tunnel that began in the shower stall of his cell.

It was an ironic end to a roller coaster 24 hours in the world's most famous trafficker's near mythical story of criminal success and run-ins with the law, and it contained many themes seen before — not least a dash for freedom through a tunnel.

"Fucking federales, you've got us now," Chapo said when he was arrested, Mexican newspaper Milenio reported on Saturday, citing sources in the operation.

Related: 'El Chapo' Mythology Grows in Drug Lord's Home State of Sinaloa

But if Chapo's spectacular third arrest — the first was in 1993 and the second in 2014 — reads like a screenplay, the ending presumably differs from the biopic the Mexican authorities says he was planning. The vanity project for the drug lord, said to be either 62 or 58 years old, appears to have been the key to his latest downfall.

This began on Friday with a pre-dawn shootout that started when special navy forces tracked Chapo to a safehouse in the northern Pacific city of Los Mochis. The firefight killed five of his men. Pictures leaked to the press purporting to show the carnage suggest they were all felled by precision shots to the head.

By the time the special forces officers got into the unremarkable-looking residence, however, the kingpin was nowhere to be seen.

According to the official version provided by Attorney General Arely Gómez on Friday night, Chapo had escaped through the city's storm drains. Local media reported that he got access to them through a tunnel constructed from inside a closet.

Tunnels have long been a leitmotif in Chapo's multiple rises and falls that began with his escape from a poverty-stricken childhood in the mountains of Sinaloa that are famed for their opium poppy and marijuana fields, as well as for producing many of Mexico's most notorious drug traffickers.

His criminal organization — the Sinaloa Cartel — has made a particular speciality of moving drugs across the border with the United States through long and sophisticated underground passages that include railed transportation, electricity and ventilation.

The group's underground trafficking strategy took off in the wake of Chapo's first jailbreak in 2001. He had been captured in 1993 after the first manhunt launched against him following a massive shootout in the airport carpark in the western city of Guadalajara in which Chapo faced off with the leaders of the then-powerful Arellano Felix cartel. That firefight had included the murder of a cardinal sitting inside his car.

After 13 years of freedom, Chapo's second high-profile capture took place in February 2014. While the arrest itself was the result of a relatively undramatic navy raid on a seaside condominium, where he was hiding out with his wife and twin daughters, it came days after he had slipped away from the closing circle in the state capital Culiacan— with the help of a tunnel.

Related: Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán Captured in Mexico: What You Need to Know

At that time the authorities said the drug lord maintained six safe houses in the city kitted out with tunnels connected to the storm drainage network. This particular passage was hidden beneath a bathtub. It tipped 45 degrees upon the pressing of a button hidden behind a mirror.

And then, of course, there was the mile-long tunnel that got him out of his cell in the Altiplano prison in July that was equipped with lights and air vents, as well as an adapted motorcycle.

On Friday, however, the underground route let the drug lord down.

It got him out of the safe house but, with federal agents in pursuit, he was forced to come to the surface through a manhole where he opted for a more traditional getaway method — stealing a car.

Photo by Ismael Aguirre. Police guard open manholes into the drainage system through which Chapo initially escaped capture

It didn't work. The reports of the stolen vehicle helped federal forces catch up with Chapo and one of his top lieutenants Orso Iván Gastélum, alias El Cholo Ivan, on a road out of town.

A leaked photograph of the pair sitting in the back seat of the car shows Chapo in a dirty vest looking pensive.

Attorney General Gómez said that Chapo was then taken to the nearby motel while reinforcements were called.

Another leaked picture shows him sitting handcuffed on the edge of the bed surrounded by sexy decor looking impassively into the distance.

Photo via Sinaloa source

The rest of the day beat entirely to the government's drum.

Chapo's escape in July — and the obvious corruption that allowed it to happen — was deeply humiliating for the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto. His recapture provided a rare opportunity to counter the sense that the government is unable to contain the country's cartels and the horrific drug war violence that has killed well over 100,000 people in the last decade.

Related: Why Chapo's Capture Won't Stop the Flow of Weed, Meth, Cocaine, and Heroin

After a formal but quietly jubilant message from the president, the day culminated with Chapo being frog-marched before the press over the tarmac at Mexico City's airport and into a large navy helicopter.

Photo by Hans Musielik. The media waits to catch a glimpse of Chapo being marched to a navy helicopter

Minutes before, Attorney General Gómez had run through the intelligence prowess she claimed had made it all possible at a carefully stage-managed press conference at the airport.

This included the surprise revelation that the crucial break needed to start surveillance of his inner circle had come from Chapo's plans to make a movie about his life.

"He established communication with actresses and producers," she said. "The surveillance even allowed the documentation of meetings between lawyers of the detainee with these people."

The manhunt first caught up with Chapo in the mountains in October, but he got away. There was no underground passages involved that time though he did flee downwards, into a ravine.

The writing was on the wall came, however, when the authorities found out that Chapo wanted to leave the mountains. That meant returning to the full script.

"Surveillance of several members of Guzmán Loera's inner circle allowed the identification of a person specialized in constructing tunnels," Gómez said. "That's how we found out that different safe houses were being prepared."

This would lead to the house in Los Mochis and Chapo's return to where he started in the Altiplano prison, raising the key question of how long he will remain there.

An extradition request from the United States was in the courts at the time of his last escape and about to be granted, according Juan Pablo Badillo, one of Chapo's lawyers.

Badillo has already sought multiple injunctions to try and stop that happening. He told VICE News on Friday that he was already preparing to seek some more.

A Reuters report on Saturday cited anonymous sources within the Mexican government saying extradition would be granted within six months once the judicial processes are seen through.

So far, however, the Mexican government officials have avoided openly talking about the issue. Extradition would carry with it the tacit admission that Mexico is not able to maintain control of Chapo, as well as the risk that he could reveal information implicating officials in corruption.

President Peña Nieto certainly didn't sound like he wanted to see Chapo sent over the border when he celebrated his arrest on Friday by claiming it proved that "Mexican institutions have the stature, strength and determination to fulfill any mission that they are given."

The president had earlier begun his first tweet announcing the recapture with the words "Mission Accomplished." Chapo, perhaps, isn't the only person who dreams of making movies.

Related: 'Chapo' Prison Break Shows Just How Weak Mexico's Government Really Is

Follow Jo Tuckman on Twitter: @jotuckman