The Hunt for El Chapo

In the 5 May issue of The New Yorker, Patrick Radden Keefe delivered this extensive account of the lengthy pursuit and eventual capture of notorious Mexican drug cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known by his nickname “El Chapo” or “shorty.”

The full 9,700-word article is incredibly gripping and full of so many thriller-esque details that it’s hard to decide which passages to quote here for readers to sample. There’s a dissection of Guzmán’s intricate, relay-based communication system, which involved multiple layers of messengers and subordinates manually re-typing text messages from celluar-based Blackberries into secure, wi-fi-only iPads to avoid wiretapping. There are examinations of how the Sinaloa cartel laundered its obscene wealth through hundreds of legitimate businesses and parlayed that money into a quasi-governmental status in certain regions of Mexico, where they came to provide many services that the national government did not. And there are chronicles of Guzmán’s many, many successful escapes from prisons and evasions of capture, for which he leveraged his perverse creativity for criminal enterprises.

Forced to decide, I would choose this passage, which recounts one of Guzmán’s final escape attempts, when he seems trapped by armed forces while hiding in a safe house. It’s quoted at length here because not a single detail seemed dispensable.

In the early days of Guzmán’s career, before his time at Puente Grande, he distinguished himself as a trafficker who brought an unusual sense of imagination and play to the trade. Today, tunnels that traverse the U.S.-Mexico border are a mainstay of drug smuggling: up to a mile long, they often feature air-conditioning, electricity, sophisticated drainage systems, and tracks, so that heavy loads of contraband can be transported on carts. Guzmán invented the border tunnel. A quarter of a century ago, he commissioned an architect, Felipe de Jesús Corona-Verbera, to design a grocery store that served as a front company, and a private zoo in Guadalajara for his collection of tigers, crocodiles, and bears. By this point, Guzmán was making so much money that he needed secure locations in which to hide it, along with his drugs and his weapons. So he had Corona-Verbera devise a series of clavos, or stashes—secret compartments under the beds in his homes. Inevitably, a bolder idea presented itself: if you could dig a clavo beneath a house near the U.S. border, why not continue digging and come out on the other side? Guzmán ordered Corona-Verbera to design a tunnel that ran from a residence in Agua Prieta, immediately south of the border, to a cartel-owned warehouse in Douglas, Arizona. The result delighted him. ‘Corona made a fucking cool tunnel,’ he said. Since then, U.S. intelligence has attributed no fewer than ninety border tunnels to the Sinaloa cartel.

When the marines began breaking into the house on Río Humaya Street, Guzmán was inside, as was a bodyguard. As the battering ram clanged against the door, they moved quickly into the ground-floor bathroom. 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. The caulk had camouflaged the escape hatch; even the bodyguard might have been unaware of its existence before Guzmán turned on the hydraulic lift.

They scrambled down the steps into a narrow passage. The space was lighted, but very tight, and they moved quickly, knowing that they had only a slight head start on the marines. They reached a small portal resembling the door of a bank safe, where the tunnel they were in connected to the main sewer system of Culiacán; crawling through this opening, they entered a cylindrical tunnel. The passage was unlit and less than five feet high; nevertheless, they splashed through the dirty, shallow water at high speed, as if Guzmán had rehearsed this escape.

By the time the SEMAR [Mexican Marine] commandos entered the tunnel, Guzmán had been running for more than ten minutes. A tunnel is an exceedingly dangerous environment in which to stalk someone who is armed: if he should turn and fire at you, he doesn’t even need to aim—one of the ricocheting bullets will likely hit you. But the marines did not hesitate. In the streets of Culiacán, meanwhile, dozens of troops were in position, ready to pursue Guzmán when he returned above ground. In the sky, a covert U.S. drone looked down on the city, poised to track the fugitive if he emerged from a manhole and fled through the streets.

Meanwhile, Chapo ran through the sewers, like Harry Lime in ‘The Third Man.’ The tunnel forked, and at one juncture the marines were momentarily flummoxed, unable to tell which path he had taken. Then they spotted a tactical vest on the ground—Guzmán or the bodyguard must have shed it—and charged onward in that direction. Eventually, the marines emerged at a storm drain by the banks of a muddy river, more than a mile from the point where Guzmán had entered the tunnel. Once again, he had vanished.

Finally, a disclaimer: I realize the tone of this post is a bit cavalier about the horrific carnage inflicted by Guzmán, Sinaloa and their colleagues in the drug industry. I guiltily admit that I’m emphasizing some of the sensationalistic aspects of the original article here, but I’m doing so only to encourage those who would otherwise be reluctant to read the source material. Keefe’s writing is not nearly so insouciant as my advertisement for it; he’s actually quite sober about the totality of Guzmán’s remorseless disregard for human life. It’s a fascinating, incredibly well-reported piece that, if anything, makes much of the mythology of the contemporary narcotics trade much more real — and frightening. You can read it here.


Do you have thoughts about this post you’d like to send Khoi? Your remarks will not be published.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.