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BROOKLYN — He could hear the rumbling beneath his prison cell for weeks. It was so loud that the other inmates were starting to complain. He was starting to get impatient.
It was the summer of 2015, and Sinaloa cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was locked up in El Altiplano, a maximum-security prison near the city of Toluca that houses many of Mexico’s most notorious drug lords. He wasn’t planning to stay for long.
Chapo had been captured less than a year earlier, in February 2014, after more than 13 years on the lam. But almost immediately, according to testimony delivered Wednesday by his former lieutenant, Dámaso López Nuñez, Chapo began plotting a daring escape. It involved digging a mile-long tunnel from a shack outside the prison to the shower inside Chapo’s cell. Everything was going according to plan, but López had to explain to Chapo that it took time to finish the tunnel.
“It wasn’t something you could do overnight,” López testified.
The 2015 escape was Chapo’s most legendary feat. But the full story of how the tunnel was built, exactly how Chapo escaped, the massive bribe that was allegedly paid, and the details of what happened afterward wasn’t told until López, also known as El Licenciado, took the witness stand during El Chapo’s trial at the U.S District Court in Brooklyn. And for the first time, López claimed that El Chapo’s wife, Emma Coronel, was allegedly a key player in the escape, coordinating the plot with the drug lord’s sons.
Coronel, who sat impassively in the courtroom while López testified, declined to comment through an attorney.
With Chapo’s trial nearing a conclusion, López was a damning witness. He described multiple murders that were allegedly committed on Chapo’s orders, and corroborated previous testimony about Chapo’s 2001 escape from another maximum security prison — where López was once the deputy director in charge of security — in a laundry cart.
But the tale about the mile-long tunnel was by far the most compelling moment on the witness stand for López. Prosecutors showed several letters (see PDF below) that Chapo wrote to López from prison following his capture on Feb. 22, 2017. The letters show Chapo scrambling to keep his empire from crumbling — and hatching plans to escape.
“I wanted to tell you that, although nothing is easy, in a way I have gotten lucky because director is very kind to me,” Chapo wrote to López. “He has helped me when I have asked.”
Chapo then mentioned that his wife would contact López with an important message.
“Please be alert, compadre,” he wrote. “She will explain.”
López testified that he subsequently met with Chapo’s wife, who asked him to send someone to Toluca “to help with errands.” López dispatched his brother-in-law, who he said “had been having meetings with some guards, and he was paying them.”
Then, López claimed, Coronel dropped the bombshell: Chapo was “thinking of taking the risk again to escape from prison.”
López said he had another meeting in May or June of 2014, with Coronel and several of Chapo’s sons, known as Los Chapitos, who were now leading the Sinaloa cartel along with López. They allegedly discussed acquiring land near the prison, and Coronel allegedly passed along the message that Chapo had asked López to acquire weapons and an armored pickup truck to use during the escape. He also said they conspired to smuggle a smart watch into the prison, which would be used to provide the GPS coordinates for Chapo’s cell so that they could connect the tunnel from the adjacent property.
By July 2015, everything was in place. Chapo planned to make his move on a weekend, when there would be less personnel at the prison. Video footage from inside Chapo’s cell on the day of the escape shows him duck behind a small dividing wall that separated his sleeping area from the shower. Then he vanishes.
It was widely reported at the time that Chapo used a motorcycle mounted on a rail to ride through the tunnel, which was also equipped with lighting and ventilation, but López offered more details. He said that one of Coronel’s brothers was driving the motorcycle, which was towed by some type of pulley system.
According to López, once Chapo reached the exit to the tunnel, there was an ATV waiting to take him to a nearby warehouse that the cartel had acquired for use during the escape. Chapo boarded a small airplane flown by his most trusted pilot, and was whisked away to the city of San Juan del Rio in the neighboring state of Querétaro. From there, Chapo flew back to his hometown of La Tuna in the mountains of Sinaloa.
López said that a week after the escape, he came to visit Chapo, who was relaxing at a palatial house on a mountaintop that overlooks La Tuna and the surrounding valley. The estate was called El Cielo — The Sky. López said Chapo’s co-leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, was present for the reunion, along with Chapo’s sons and other key members of the cartel.
“We were all happy because of what happened with my compadre’s escape,” López recalled.
Chapo didn’t remain free for long. He was recaptured in January 2016 after a shootout with Mexican marines in the city of Los Mochis and promptly sent back to the prison from whence he came. Once again, López testified, Chapo passed a message through his wife that “he was going to make a huge effort to escape again.”
López testified that in order to facilitate the last escape attempt, the cartel delivered a $2 million bribe to the chief of Mexico’s prison system. He did not identify the official alleged to have received the bribe by name.
The final escape plan never materialized. Chapo was transferred to another prison, in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, where he was held until his extradition to the United States in January 2017.
On cross-examination, López acknowledged that he was not privy to all the details of the escape plan. He said he merely helped with planning and logistics, but was not involved in the actual excavation of the tunnel.
"I never knew, not even about one shovel of earth that was removed there,” López said. “His sons were doing that."
Chapo’s lawyer Eduardo Balarezo asked why they didn’t just attempt to repeat the laundry cart escape from 2001. He referenced the mile-long tunnel, the motorcycle, the airplane, and asked López, "It's pretty spectacular, right?"
López replied, deadpan: "It's very real."
Cover: A motorcycle adapted to a rail sits in the tunnel under the half-built house where according to authorities, drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman made his escape from the Altiplano maximum security prison in Almoloya, west of Mexico City, Thursday, July 16, 2015. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)