Chasing ‘El Chapo’: Prison Breaks, Hideaways and Life on the Lam

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The notorious cartel boss hid in a laundry cart the first time he broke out of prison — or so the story goes.

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is seen in a booking photo after his arrest on Jan. 8, 2016. (Credit: Federal Social Readaptation Center No. 1/Handout)
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is seen in a booking photo after his arrest on Jan. 8, 2016. (Credit: Federal Social Readaptation Center No. 1/Handout)

The next time, he slipped out through an underground tunnel and rode a motorcycle to freedom.

The brazen escapes, and the stories that swirled about them afterward, cemented Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera’s place as a mythical figure in Mexico’s criminal underworld.

His nickname means “Shorty,” but there’s no shortage of tall tales about the Sinaloa cartel kingpin.

Behind them lies a staggering truth: Guzman, authorities say, built the largest illegal drug organization in the world.

Jim Dinkins spent the bulk of his career trying to stop him. And the former head of investigations for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security says one thing comes to mind when he hears El Chapo’s name: “Evil genius.”

“He rose up out of the streets,” Dinkins said, “to become one of the most powerful people in the world.”

Now Guzman is behind bars again — held in a Juarez, Mexico, prison as his attorneys fight efforts to extradite him to the United States.

And the story of how he got there is anything but simple.

An empire is born

Guzman got to know the drug business at an early age.

His hometown of Badiraguato, Sinaloa, is inside Mexico’s Golden Triangle, the heart of the country’s drug trade.

For decades, families in the area worked the fields, cultivating marijuana and poppies used to produce heroin, according to Anabel Hernandez, an investigative journalist who covers Mexican cartels.

“His father used to do it,” she said. “His grandfather used to do it.”

And by the time Guzman was 7 years old, he’d left school to do it, too, Hernandez said.

He started out working for Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo’s notorious Guadalajara cartel. That group eventually splintered into several factions; one of them was Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel.

The drug empire became Mexico’s most powerful. And there was another thing that distinguished it — and its leader.

“He was a killer,” Dinkins says.

Guzman surrounded himself with ruthless guards and enforcers, reigning over a multibillion-dollar global drug empire that supplied much of the marijuana, cocaine and heroin peddled on the streets of the United States.

In indictments filed in federal courts across the United States, prosecutors accuse the organization of using assassins and hit squads to maintain its control.

Chicago named him “Public Enemy No. 1” in 2013, calling him the city’s “new Al Capone.”

“While Chicago is 1,500 miles from Mexico, the Sinaloa drug cartel is so deeply embedded in the city that local and federal law enforcement are forced to operate as if they are on the border,” Jack Riley, who heads the Drug Enforcement Administration’s office in the city, said at the time.

In Mexico, analysts say, the strength of Guzman’s enterprise helped unleash an ongoing drug war that has left tens of thousands of his countrymen dead.

A particularly high-profile killing made El Chapo Guzman a household name, and landed him in jail: the 1993 slaying of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo.

Authorities said the beloved church official was slain by Guzman’s enemies, who thought they were taking aim at the drug lord.

As outrage mounted over the cardinal’s death, Guzman was arrested in Guatemala. Authorities extradited him to Mexico, where he was quickly convicted of criminal association and bribery and sentenced to 20 years behind bars.

At the time, he denied any connection to drugs.

“I am a farmer,” he told reporters.

Escape spurs lengthy manhunt

During his time in Mexico’s Puente Grande prison, Guzman lived like a king, with catered food and frequent visits from women, Hernandez said.

“This prison became a resort for ‘El Chapo’ Guzman,” Hernandez told CNN.

But despite the reportedly cushy conditions, by 2001 Guzman was ready for a change of scenery.

That year, with 12 years left in his sentence, officials say Guzman escaped from the prison in a laundry cart.

Hernandez tells a different version of the story.

“Two very high-level officials of the government opened the door and said, ‘Sir, you can leave now,'” the investigative journalist says.

During the drug lord’s nearly 13 years on the lam, rumors swirled about his whereabouts.

From time to time, investigators suggested they were hot on his trail. But even as Mexico stepped up its pressure on cartels, he remained an elusive target. Many in the country suggested that his whereabouts were an open secret — and that the government must have been deliberately steering clear of capturing him.

In 2009, the archbishop of Mexico’s Durango state told reporters that Guzman lived near the mountain town of Guanacevi.

“Everyone knows it,” he said, “except the authorities.”

Days later, investigators found the bodies of two slain army lieutenants in Durango’s mountains, accompanied by a note: “Neither the government nor priests can handle El Chapo.”

A year later, when asked by reporters again about Guzman’s whereabouts, the archbishop said, “He is omnipresent. … He is everywhere.”

Robin Hood ‘mystique’

Guzman’s legend grew even more while he was on the run.

Stories proliferated of him helping the poor, or taking everyone’s cell phones at a restaurant while he ate and then footing their bills for the inconvenience.

“I heard that story a million times around Mexico. I believe it may have happened once in Sinaloa — maybe. I’m not really sure,” says Malcolm Beith, author of “The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World’s Most Wanted Drug Lord.”

“These stories, they circulate around. Suddenly he’s the man about town. He’s an amazing man of the people, and God — he paid the bill, too. That’s very old school mafia. It’s straight out of the mob movies.”

That image was good for Guzman, even if the tales weren’t true, Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Stratfor, told CNN in 2013.

“He wants to try to foster that whole mystique,” Stewart said.

The idea that Guzman was some sort of Robin Hood character helped him hide out from authorities and evade arrest, Stewart said.

“I think there’s a false narrative that says El Chapo is kind of this benevolent businessman,” he said.

But benevolent or not, experts say it’s hard to dispute Guzman’s business savvy.

He ran the cartel like a CEO, bringing it so much financial success that in 2009 he landed on a billionaires list in Forbes magazine, along with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

Inclusion on the business magazine’s list wasn’t the only mention Guzman got.

The drug lord also started cropping up in narcocorridos, popular Mexican songs that often glorify drug trafficking, telling tales of armored cars, shootings and police chases.

And it wasn’t long before the idolization spread north of the border.

In 2012, American rapper Gucci Mane devoted a song to Guzman:

All I wanna be is El Chapo

Fully automatic slice your auto

All I wanna be is El Chapo

Three billion dollars in pesos

All I wanna be is El Chapo

And when I meet him I’ma tell him bravo

Tunneling out

Even as his notoriety grew, Guzman himself kept a low profile.

People said they’d spotted him in locations across Mexico, in Guatemala and even in Europe. Authorities called him the world’s most wanted drug lord, but every time they tried to nab him, Guzman found a way to slip out of sight.

That changed in 2014, when a triumphant Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto trumpeted Guzman’s capture at a hotel in the Pacific beach town of Mazatlan as a sign that his government’s security strategy was working.

The following year, speeches from the Mexican leader struck a decidedly different chord.

Guzman had broken out of a maximum-security prison again, authorities announced. This time, he used a mile-long tunnel for his getaway.

Security cameras in the Altiplano prison recorded Guzman stepping into a shower area — but never stepping out.

Later that day, authorities announced that Guzman was missing. He escaped through a hole in his cell that led to a lighted and ventilated tunnel.

It took nearly six months for investigators to find him again.

They closed in on Guzman at a hideaway in the coastal city of Los Mochis.

In a stranger-than-fiction twist, authorities said the drug lord’s desire to tell his story on the big screen — and to flirt with a famed soap opera actress who’d played a crime boss on television — led to his capture.

Text messages arranging a secret meeting between Guzman, Mexican actress Kate del Castillo and American actor Sean Penn were key clues that tipped off investigators.

‘This is a race’

Now Guzman is behind bars again while lawyers and his family fight attempts to extradite him and criticize the way authorities are treating him in prison.

Jose Refugio, Guzman’s lawyer, said he plans to mount a vigorous defense.

“It is not a lost cause,” he told CNN. “If it were a lost cause, I wouldn’t be defending him.”

Asked what his client does for a living, Refugio points to Guzman’s 1993 statement calling himself a farmer.

If he’s extradited, U.S. officials tell CNN that Guzman will head to Brooklyn, New York, to stand trial on federal charges. An updated indictment filed in Brooklyn last month says Guzman and another cartel leader face charges of conspiring to import hundreds of thousands of pounds of cocaine into the U.S. between 1999 and 2014.

Guzman also faces federal charges in five other U.S. states, including a murder charge in Texas. Asked for his response to the U.S. charges, Refugio says he hasn’t discussed the details of most of the cases with his client.

“His legal processes in Mexico have been fraught with illegal evidence,” the lawyer says. “I can tell you about the charges he faces in Texas, where they have five witnesses, four of which don’t even know him. … I don’t have any evidence. I don’t know what he did, how he behaved on the outside. I can’t talk about him on the outside. All I see from a legal viewpoint are those discrepancies.”

Those who’ve followed Guzman’s case for years say there’s no telling what will happen next.

“This is a race,” said Alejandro Hope, a Mexican security analyst. “Either the Mexican government sends him to the U.S. within a couple years, or he’ll recreate the conditions that allow him to escape, and may try again.”

Derek Maltz, who once led the Drug Enforcement Administration’s special operations division, said there’s no doubt.

“Of course he can escape again, because it’s Chapo, Harry Houdini,” Maltz said. “Nothing would surprise me with this guy.”

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