Men freeze in place, holding pickaxes and shovels at the ready inside a well-lit tunnel under the Mexican countryside. They can hear the vibrations of a vehicle above them, and wary of making any noise that might give them away, hold their work as the prison patrol passes by overhead (El Chapo Escaped). Thirty feet below the prison’s main yard, there’s little chance of being discovered, but after several months of secret tunneling, they can’t take any chances- especially when they are so close to their goal: the prison cell of Mexico’s most famous drug kingpin: Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
For months they’ve tunneled through solid rock with nothing more than pickaxes and shovels, moving as fast as they can with their limited equipment but with great caution. The work would go much faster if they could use modern tunnel digging equipment like jackhammers and boring machines, but not only would that create noise that might give them away, it would draw a great deal of attention to their staging area just a mile from the prison perimeter.
Prior to tunnel digging, El Chapo’s powerful drug cartel purchased a small plot of land as close to the prison as they could get and began constructing two small homes as a cover for their real intentions.
The homes never made it past a rough brick outer shell though, because of course they would not be inhabited- instead, they provided the cover needed to start construction on the tunnel that would set El Chapo free. But the tunnel crew was facing incredible pressure to finish as quickly as possible- due to his history of escaping from prison and evading police raids, Mexican authorities could at any time transfer El Chapo to another prison in order to foil any possible escape attempts.
Every day the tunnelers took to get to their boss was another day the entire thing could be for nothing, and a new escape attempt in a completely different location would have to be devised. But that’s not all- the unfinished buildings were beginning to draw attention from local officials and curious villagers alike, why would someone start construction on an empty piece of land and then suddenly stop with only a shell of a home built? Time was running out, and pressure was mounting.
Inside his cell, El Chapo was the model prisoner. Despite his long history of ordering some of the most horrific violence Mexico has ever seen, El Chapo maintained a cordial and even pleasant attitude with his prison guards and fellow inmates. His conversations over the phone were carefully monitored, his mail checked by prison officials- but not a single hint of the ongoing plot was ever revealed. El Chapo was a true professional by now, and patient- but his patience was running out.
Attorney General of Mexico
The tunnel diggers faced a daunting task from the start, and knew they had to move fast. Despite the incredible pressure on them however, they managed to not only reach El Chapo before any potential prison transfer, but they wound up breaking through to El Chapo’s cell just sixteen months into his prison stay. The tunnel they constructed was sophisticated, impressing officials who would later remark that a tunnel of that magnitude should have taken 18 months to two years to construct. Its walls were reinforced where needed with wooden paneling, and a generator pumped fresh air through a mile long ventilation system to keep the tunnel oxygenated.
On the ground the tunnelers had laid down rails and used a motorcycle to shuttle two carts which were filled with dirt back and forth along the shaft- once El Chapo was reached he would ride on that same motorcycle and quickly shuttle the mile distance to freedom. All that dirt though had to go somewhere, and so the tunnelers cleverly transferred it to the tunnel opening where others would spread the dirt around the field on the outside, rather than dump it in giant piles which would no doubt draw attention.
Still, the presence of fresh dirt littering acres of empty fields was sure to eventually draw attention, and questions that would not be easy to answer for the fake construction crew above ground.
The middle of the night El Chapo escaped
Suddenly though, in the middle of the night on July 12, 2015, the sound of metal scraping came from El Chapo’s shower inside his cell. Moments later the ceramic bottom of the shower popped free, and a friendly face greeted the imprisoned drug lord, beckoning him into the darkness below. Wasting no time, El Chapo ducked into the secret tunnel, climbing down thirty feet into a tunnel only as wide across as a man, but just tall enough for El Chapo to stand upright.
Often derided for his short stature by his enemies, the tunnel diggers had made sure that the tunnel was just tall enough so the boss wouldn’t have to hunch as he walked along it- a classy prison escape if we ever heard of one.
A few feet into the mouth of the tunnel, El Chapo boarded a small motorcycle which had been affixed to metal tracks. The carts full of dirt that it had pushed along for months were gone now, and just moments after leaving his cell El Chapo was cruising along the well-lit tunnel like a kid on an amusement park ride. Two minutes later El Chapo ended his joyride by climbing up wooden steps and popping up into the empty shell of a home his crew had been secretly working from for a year and a half.
Changing into clean clothes, El Chapo then climbed into a truck and was whisked away into the dark of the night, leaving behind an incredible mile-long secret tunnel and a completely frustrated prison system and Mexican government both.
El Chapo would be caught again just months after his escape, after his newest safe house was given away weeks before his arrival by careless gunmen who were spotted by locals. Responding to reports of heavily armed men, Mexican officials put the house under surveillance and intercepted communications saying that “grandma” or “aunt” was coming to visit. Realizing this had to be a high value target, officials waited for their chance to strike.
One month later…
One month later, Mexican special forces soldiers raided the home and killed several bodyguards, but El Chapo and one of his most senior lieutenants escaped via- you guessed it- a secret tunnel. Popping up a mile from the home, the two stole a vehicle at gunpoint, though the driver immediately reported it to the police. After issuing an alert for the stolen vehicle, Federal Police officers discovered the stolen car and placed the two fugitives under arrest.
El Chapo however wouldn’t go without at least trying to buy his freedom. Knowing how easily corruptible public officials had been in the past, El Chapo bribed the police officers, offering them money, homes, and even lucrative jobs if they let him go. Little did the desperate kingpin know however that he was dealing with a new brand of Mexican police officer, one not as easily corrupted as his predecessors. All four officers refused El Chapo, after which his offers of honey turned into vinegar, telling the police officers that they were both going to die.
The four officers sent pictures of El Chapo to their superiors, only to be warned that the police had received a tip off that 40 heavily armed assassins were en route to free El Chapo. With friendly forces still tied up at the compound, the officers were ordered to a nearby motel on the outskirts of town where they holed themselves up in an empty room and prepared for a possible shootout for their lives. All the while, El Chapo laughed, echoing his previous threats.
Suddenly, a convoy of vehicles lit up the road outside, clearly headed for the lonely motel. The officers, armed with M-16 assault rifles and pistols prepared for what was surely their last stand. El Chapo taunted them, telling them they were about to face death, and after them- their families. Yet the officers held their ground, ready to die for duty’s sake if need be.
As the vehicles began to turn into the parking lot, however, El Chapo’s taunts died in his throat- once the glare of the headlights faded, the barricaded officers could see military trucks full of Mexican marines, rushing to take up defensive positions around the motel. Minutes later a thoroughly defeated and dejected-looking El Chapo was dragged into an SUV and rushed off to an airfield.
El Chapo would not escape from Mexican prison again, and two years later any hope of ever escaping again would be extinguished as Mexico approved an extradition request to the United States. Safely in US custody, El Chapo faces life in prison, and though he may have been one of the deadliest men in Mexico’s history, the drug kingpin would ultimately be remembered as nothing more than a sobbing mess as he begged US justice officials for leniency, which they would not grant.