Mexico

Mexican Kingpin Uses Skills He Honed in the Drug War to Tunnel Out of Prison

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Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, former head of the notorious Sinaloa cartel, has apparently tunneled his way out of a maximum-security prison in Mexico and is on the lam, according to the Washington Post.

For the past year and a half, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel had been incarcerated inside the Altiplano, a federal facility set amid farmland west of the capital that holds the top captured drug bosses and has been described as the country's most impenetrable prison.

That all changed late Saturday night, when Guzman slipped out of the prison through a rectangular passage in the shower area of his cell that led to a nearly mile-long tunnel running underneath the prison, according to Mexico's national security commissioner, Monte Alejandro Rubido.

The Mexican and American governments touted the capture of Guzman in 2014 as a major blow to the cartel and a victory in the war on drugs, but his latest escape (he also escaped prison in 2001) is just another example of the incredibly sophisticated nature of their adversaries. As I argued last year after producing a video about the "super drug tunnels" underneath the California-Mexico border, the government and the cartels are in a sort of perpetual arms race:

Decades of experience and improvements in technology have honed the Tunnel Task Force's proficiency at detecting and eliminating tunnels, and Garcia's team has all but stamped out amateurish, unskilled smuggling operations. In this challenging environment, the most sophisticated and well-funded operations have cornered the market and see a bigger and better payout at the end of the proverbial, and literal, tunnel. As a result, the team has discovered numerous so-called "super tunnels" over the past five years: deep, multi-million dollar, professionally constructed tunnels boasting elevator shafts, high-powered ventilation, and even electric trains, possibly making them some of California's first ever profitable rail projects.

That Guzman tunneled out of the prison is particularly interesting given the Sinaloa cartel's history of constructing the super tunnels underneath the border. When I interviewed Joe Garcia, head of the DEA's Tunnel Task Force, last year to discuss the government's ongoing efforts to detect and fill up tunnels, he compared early efforts to playing "whack-a-mole" and emphasized that the government had shifted its strategy towards capturing cartel leaders like Guzman. But this shift tended to create destabilizing effects as rival drug lords vied to fill newly created power vacuums, leading to some of the worst bloodshed in Mexico's history.

Watch the video below for more about the tunnels and El Chapo Guzman.