Everything We Know About the Mexican Drug Lord Who Escaped from Prison This Weekend

Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as "El Chapo," surpassed Pablo Escobar as the most successful drug kingpin of all time years ago. This weekend, he pulled off his second elaborate escape from prison.

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Jul 13 2015, 8:15pm

Joaquín Guzmán Loera in 1992. Photo by Fabrizio León Diez/via Wikimedia Commons

The tunnel would have been a tight squeeze for most men, but it was just the right size for the one known as "El Chapo."

Even though the feds have said he surpassed Pablo Escobar as the most successful drug kingpin of all time—and that was four years ago—precious little biographical detail is available on Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known by his nickname, which means "shorty" in English. Even his date of birth is a mystery, although he's thought to be in his late 50s, a self-made man who transcended illiteracy and poverty to become one of the most successful businessmen of all time.

What Mexican officials do know for certain that Shorty stands five feet, five inches tall—just an inch shorter than the passageway he used to escape from the country's most secure prison on Saturday. The occasion marks the second time the head of the Sinaloa Cartel has burrowed his way out of prison, and is a legit disaster for the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto, which touted his re-capture last year as evidence that the country was finally cracking down on organized crime, as the New York Times reported.

Guzmán descended into a two-by-two-foot hole on Saturday night around 9 PM and remerged through a 20-inch wide rectangle inside a cinderblock building about a mile away from the Altiplano prison complex, VICE News reported. The tunnel, which sounds like something out of a superhero movie, is apparently an extraordinary engineering project complete with ventilation, lighting, and even a rail system connected to some kind of motorcycle for hauling out all the dirt.

The escape is just another mind-boggling chapter in the life of Guzmán, which has all the trappings of a Hollywood blockbuster. Born to a poor family in the village of El Tuna in Badiraguato, in northwest Mexico, El Chapo grew up selling oranges, dropped out of school in third grade, and started supporting his family with a marijuana operation when he was 15. When he left his hometown, he started his career in the Guadalajara Cartel, and emerged as a key player in the reconfigured drug trade after the DEA cracked down on traffickers in South America.

El Chapo made his name and a Forbes-worthy fortune thanks to more than 100 smuggling tunnels near the Mexican-American border. But after a long and violent run that climaxed in a bloody battle with the Tijuana Cartel, he was captured in Guatemala in 1993 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

His reputation entered the stratosphere when he became the Houdini of the Mexican Drug trade in 2001, reportedly bribing a prison guard to hide him in a laundry cart. From that point on, El Chapo was more myth than man—a goliath who apparently could vanish into thin air. He evaded recapture for more than a decade despite being among the most wanted men on the planet. (To that end, he owned several houses equipped with trap doors and escape hatches, like one hidden under a bathtub.)

While he was a fugitive, Guzmán was the subject of numerous narcocorridosfolk ballads that lionize drug traffickers—and there were rumors that he'd show up at restaurants, confiscate everyone's cell phone, and pay customers' bills for the evening.

Although he clearly had some admirers rooting for him, it was a huge deal when El Chapo was finally captured in February 2014. After all, former President Felipe Calderon had made cracking down on Mexican drug violence a major goal of his administration. But despite all the back-slapping, American officials were worried that the drug lord might escape again and argued for his extradition to the United States, where he might find less success with bribes.

If El Chapo ever does get indicted in the US, he'll be tried from coast to coast. According to federal court records, there are open cases against him in New Hampshire, New York, Texas, California, and Illinois. The latter attributes 1,985 kilograms of cocaine and heroin seized in the state between June 2005 and November 2008 to his operation. A 2009 Brooklyn indictment that was unsealed last year charges El Chapo and cohorts called El Mayo, El Nacho, and El Rey with deploying sicarios—or hit men—to carry out 12 murders.

"We share the government of Mexico's concern regarding the escape of Joaquin Guzmán Loera 'Chapo' from a Mexican prison," Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement yesterday. "In addition to his crimes in Mexico, he faces multiple drug trafficking and organized crime charges in the United States."

Mexican officials were adamant that El Chapo would never escape again. But an account associated with the drug lord's son seemed to suggest weeks ago that something was brewing.

"I haven't lied and I haven't cried, but it's fair for men and here is mine," Ivan Guzman apparently wrote on May 8. "I have armed people and I promise you soon the general will be back."

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