Prison guard Jaime Sanchez Flores made his usual rounds at 9.15 p.m. at Puente Grande. Nothing was amiss, everyone was in his place.
There was reason to be especially vigilant. Earlier that Friday, 19 January 2001, a group of high-ranking Mexican officials had visited the maximum-security facility, located in the central state of Jalisco. Leading the delegation was Jorge Tello Peon, the nation’s deputy police chief, and high among his concerns was one inmate in particular: Joaquin Archivaldo “El Chapo” Guzman Loera.
Chapo had been in Puente Grande since 1995, having been transferred there two years after his capture in Guatemala. Although he had been behind bars for nearly eight years, and had never tried to break out, there was good reason for Tello Peon to be worried. Just days before the officials’ 19 January visit, the Mexican Supreme Court had ruled that criminals tried in Mexico could be more easily extradited to the United States.
Chapo, facing drug trafficking indictments north of the border, could soon find himself on the way to a maximum-security prison in the United States.
No drug trafficker wanted to face such a fate, and Tello Peon knew it. So did Chapo. Within the towering whitewashed walls of Puente Grande, Chapo could still run his business with little difficulty. Corruption in the prison was rampant, and Chapo’s status as one of Mexico’s most formidable narcos was indisputable—even if he was locked away in a Mexican jail.
But in the United States, Chapo would face real justice, with real consequences. It was every narco’s fear, to be cut off from his closest cronies, his network – to be moved out of the Mexican system that was so riddled with corruption. During the 1980s, Colombia’s drug lords had fought a terror campaign in order to beat down extradition laws; Mexico’s drug lords were of a similar mindset. Chapo would not go to the United States.
Minutes after Sanchez Flores did his last rounds, the lights went out in the cells at the facility, which held 508 prisoners. At the time, Puente Grande was one of three maximum-security penitentiaries in Mexico, equipped with 128 of the best closed-circuit TV cameras—they monitored every corner of the jail—and alarm systems available. The cameras were all operated from outside the prison itself, and no one on the site had access to the controls. In the hallways, only one door could be open at a time—each was electronically controlled.
Between forty-five minutes and an hour after Sanchez Flores last checked up on the drug lord, a guard named Francisco Camberos Rivera, a.k.a. “El Chito,” opened Chapo’s electronically locked cell.
The high-priority prisoner waltzed down the hall and hopped into a laundry cart, which El Chito wheeled right out of Cell Block C3. They took a right, and headed down to the next level of the prison. Most of the electronic doors opened easily, as the circuits had been cut. Others were broken and didn’t work anyway, so they just swung open. One door had been propped open with an old shoe—hardly the epitome of maximum security that the government claimed.
El Chito and Chapo—still in the cart—turned towards Cell Block B3, but the guard quickly realized that was a bad move. There were still people in the dining area, probably guards having a late meal. So El Chito chose a seemingly risky route, going through the hallway lined with observation rooms—which was normally also filled with guards—towards the main exit.
They passed into the area in which visitors and all those who enter the prison during daylight hours are searched from head to toe. The on-duty guard asked El Chito where he was going.
Taking out the laundry, like I always do, the guard replied.
The on-duty officer stuck his hands deep in the cart—but not deep enough. All he felt were clothes and sheets. He waved them through; Chapo was wheeled out of the gates.
Only one guard was monitoring the car park, and he was indoors behind a glass pane with his nose buried in paperwork at his desk. Chapo shed his beige prison jumpsuit and shoes and hopped out of the cart, into the boot of a nearby Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
El Chito dropped the cart off just inside the main gate, as he always did when taking out the laundry, and got behind the wheel of the getaway car. They began their drive out of Puente Grande.
A guard stopped them as they tried to leave the car park. But his shift was about to end, and he was in no mood to do his job thoroughly. He had a quick look inside the vehicle, ignoring the boot, and waved El Chito through. The guard and Chapo drove away down Zapotlanejo Avenue.
Chapo was free.
El Chito’s role wasn’t finished yet. Chapo got into the passenger seat, and told his young accomplice that he would be better off fleeing with him, given that the ensuing newspaper and television headlines, not to mention the manhunts, would all include him.
Worried, El Chito mulled this over as he kept driving. When they arrived on the outskirts of Guadalajara, Chapo told the guard he was thirsty. El Chito went into a shop to buy him a bottle of water.
When he got back to the car, Chapo was gone.
Throughout the whole affair, no alarms in Puente Grande had sounded. The guards in the looming towers of the prison, with their 360-degree view of the area, had seen nothing. Inside, their colleagues carried on their night-time inspections as if nothing had occurred.
At 11.35 p.m., prison warden Leonardo Beltran Santana received a phone call. Chapo wasn’t in his cell, a guard told him. Panic ensued among the prison staff, and they began a search of the facility, cell by cell, room by room, closet by closet. It would be another five hours before Tello Peon would be informed of the break.
Tello Peon’s first thought—rightly—was that the system had broken down. Corruption had long been rampant within Mexico’s prison walls, and only corruption could have allowed Chapo to escape so easily. That had been the precise reason for his visit—to check the prison for signs of guards’ collusion with Chapo and his narco cohorts. Prior to 19 January, there had been rumours that Chapo would try to break out, but no concrete evidence of a plan being put into action. As a result, Tello Peon had ordered that Chapo be transferred to a different wing of the prison after his visit, but this order had not yet been carried out.
“This is treason against the security system and the country,” Tello Peon declared that Saturday morning, as the nation woke up to headlines of Chapo’s Hollywood-style escape. Fuming, livid, the police official vowed to launch a nationwide hunt for this man, to catch Chapo no matter what, to punish all those responsible.
He began at Puente Grande. Seventy-three guards, custodians and even the warden were detained for questioning. Under Mexican law, they would be held for forty days by decree of a judge, in order for the Attorney General’s Office to investigate them thoroughly for alleged complicity in the escape.
In towns near by, the police and Army began their searches. They ransacked houses, ranches, even government buildings, but found little—traces of drug traffickers, guns, money, drugs, but not Chapo.
The hunt spilled over into Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, located just over five miles away. There, at the home of one of Chapo’s associates, federal police found military-issue weapons, phones and computers, and $65,000 in cash—but still no Chapo. Anonymous tips led them to Mazamitla, a few miles south of Guadalajara, where they searched seventeen houses and four ranches from top to bottom. The people of Mazamitla were harbouring Chapo, or so the authorities had been told, but no, he wasn’t to be found there either.
Within days, it was clear that Chapo must have fled the immediate area. The hunt would have to be extended nationwide, with hundreds of federal police and soldiers scattering everywhere from major cities to tiny pueblos in the sierras and dusty border towns, all searching for the one man who had so embarrassed the government with his escape. As far north as Tamaulipas and all the way to the southern border with Guatemala, checkpoints were reinforced.
Authorities in Guatemala were put on alert. US agencies—the FBI among them—were called in to help in the manhunt north of the border, on the offchance the drug kingpin had made it safely into the United States in the confusion following the breakout. The public was laughing at newly elected President Vicente Fox over Chapo’s disappearance. Fox, meanwhile, was furious and frustrated, as his prison system had been proven useless. No resource would be spared to catch the fugitive.
Chapo, meanwhile, was throwing a party in Badiraguato with his old partners in crime.
The DEA was furious. Cooperation between Mexico and the United States had begun to improve during the Fox administration— Chapo’s escape was “an affront to the efforts to strengthen and honour the rule of law”, fumed then-DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson.
Some DEA agents took his evasion personally, too. They and their Mexican counterparts had lost lives trying to capture drug kingpins, and now Chapo had simply been allowed to walk out of jail. It was a “huge discouragement to law enforcement efforts.”