Who needs luck when you have a billion-dollar criminal enterprise and a nationwide network of informants at your disposal? That seems to be the lifelong motto of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, who on Saturday escaped from a maximum-security prison in Mexico – the second time he’s pulled off such a feat. His history of close calls extends far beyond his two prison breaks, and have become an integral element of his notoriety and legend as the head of the Sinaloa cartel, one of the most powerful illicit drug organizations in Mexico.
Here’s a timeline of some of his nearest misses and narrowest escapes.
1993: Rival gang members made an attempt on Guzmán’s life at the Guadalajara airport. The shootout resulted in the death of Mexican cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo. “Prosecutors say the Tijuana drug cartel, another offshoot of the Guadalajara Cartel, mistook him for Guzmán in a bungled assassination attempt,” according to the AP. Guzmán was arrested later that year and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
2001: Guzmán escaped from a maximum-security prison for the first time, after bribing prison officials who turned a blind eye while a janitor wheeled him out in a laundry cart. That escape allegedly cost Guzmán $2.5 million and resulted in charges being brought against 71 prison officials.
2004: Following the 2001 break, Guzmán would evade the authorities for 13 years. There were two close calls in 2004, however. “In 2004, the Mexican army received a tip that Chapo and one of his associates had thrown a party in La Tuna, the drug lord’s hometown,” Malcolm Beith and Jan-Albert Hootsen report for Vocativ. “They were on their way to the neighboring state of Durango, when helicopters swooped in on a nearby ranch where Chapo was thought to be resting. The narcos managed to escape on foot through the hills.”
The other attempt that year, Beith and Hootsen write, involved 200 soldiers who raided a ranch near La Tuna; Guzmán reportedly got away with ten minutes to spare.
2007: Guzmán threw a massive wedding party for himself and his 18-year-old bride, Emma Coronel, that was reportedly attended by “many officials and local police.” The Mexican Army dispatched helicopters and troops in a raid, but Guzmán had fled hours earlier.
2012: DEA officials tracked Guzmán’s Blackberry and alerted Mexican troops to his whereabouts in the city of Los Cabos, according to an account by Patrick Radden Keefe in The New Yorker. But again Guzmán was able to elude capture, this time through the back door of a mansion. At some point Guzmán realized his mobile device had been targeted, and passed it off to a subordinate to take the fall. “The authorities, unaware of the handoff, chased the signal around Los Cabos, until they finally pounced on the sacrificial subordinate,” writes Radden Keefe. “While they were occupied with arresting him, Guzmán made it into the desert, where a private plane picked him up and flew him back to the safety of the Sierra Madre.”
By this point, Guzmán’s narrow but constant escapes had become lore among U.S. law enforcement officials. “Every time he gets away, they tell us, ‘He got out the back door,'” said one American official, according to an ABC News report from that year. “U.S. officials have started to joke that ‘there is no word for “surround” in Spanish.'” That same report also noted that in another attempt to apprehend Guzmán, authorities were so close to nabbing him that his coffee was still warm when they arrived.
2014: Mexican Marines and U.S. advisors continued to pursue Guzmán, this time in Culiacán. The Marines managed to arrest – and flip – one of his top lieutenants, discovering the address where Guzmán was staying.
But once more, Guzmán escaped, again using a complex tunnel system. As the troops attempted to breach the front door to the house, “Chapo activated the escape hatch by pushing a plug into an electrical outlet by the sink while flicking a hidden switch on the side of the vanity mirror. Suddenly, the caulk around the rim of the bathtub broke and the tub rose from its tiled frame,” writes Radden Keefe in The New Yorker. Guzmán fled down a passageway and into a network of tunnels that connected six other houses.
2015: Following his 2014 arrest, Guzmán escaped from a maximum-security prison for the second time, again through a massive and sophisticated tunnel, this one originating in a prison shower stall. The New York Times reports that tunnel was “more than two feet wide and more than five feet high, tall enough for him to walk standing upright, and was burrowed more than 30 feet underground.” The sheer effort that would go into moving that amount of dirt – nearly 400 dump trucks’ worth – has led many analysts to conclude that prison and government officials were in on the conspiracy.
Some critics of the War on Drugs have argued that increasingly progressive drug laws in the U.S., including various levels of decriminalization and legalization, have weakened the Mexican drug cartels. A Washington Post report from January of this year cited DEA figures showing that imports of Mexican-grown marijuana were down 37 percent, but that cartels had pushed heroin and methamphetamine sales higher to make up for the lost profit.
If the U.S. were to pursue a nationwide repeal of the prohibition of illicit drugs, there’s good reason to believe crime in both the U.S. and Mexico would decrease, as would the power of the cartels.
And as the U.S. lectures Mexico on the need to keep narco kingpins in prison, the DOJ might want to take a second look at some of the U.S.-based bankers who helped launder their money.