On July 11, Joaquin Guzmán—widely known as “El Chapo” and the leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel—escaped from a maximum security prison in Mexico. TCF senior fellow Patrick Radden Keefe describes the details of the escape in The New Yorker:
“After the cameras clocked him entering the shower last night, Chapo did not re-appear… Guzmán had entered a tunnel, which appears to have started inside the shower in his cell. In the tunnel, he hopped onto a motorcycle that was specially modified to run on rails, and escaped. Chapo is not one to dig his own tunnels, and according to Rubido, this passage was an industrial feat. It featured lighting and ventilation, and extended 1.5 kilometers to a house outside the prison walls. By the time authorities searched the house, Guzmán had vanished.”
The escape was Guzmán’s second; the first was in January 2001. El Chapo, then, has long been a key player in the story of Mexico’s cartels, and for the past few years, Patrick Radden Keefe has been following the twists. During his time at The Century Foundation, Keefe has become a leading expert on international crime and corruption, with a particular focus on Mexican drug cartels and the infamous El Chapo. He has reported on the issue for The New Yorker and the New York Times, and has shared his unique insights on the Charlie Rose Show and NPR’s All Things Considered, among others. Readers can follow the entire El Chapo saga through his extensive reporting.
Keefe’s first dispatch on El Chapo came in 2012, in a piece called “Cocaine Incorporated”:
“Known as El Chapo for his short, stocky frame, Guzmán is 55, which in narco-years is about 150. He is a quasi-mythical figure in Mexico, the subject of countless ballads, who has outlived enemies and accomplices alike, defying the implicit bargain of a life in the drug trade: that careers are glittering but brief and always terminate in prison or the grave.”
At the time, El Chapo had been a free man for 11 years, having escaped from a prison in Mexico in 2001. Forbes estimated that he was a billionaire, and Keefe painted a picture of a skilled, calculating leader, capable of keeping the Mexican government at bay with a sophisticated system of bribes and looking to expand into new markets across the world.
Last February, though, El Chapo’s seemingly magical luck ended, and he was finally captured. Three months later, Keefe published an account in The New Yorker, “The Hunt for El Chapo,” of the thirteen year effort that ultimately led to Guzmán’s capture:
“Guzmán had scrambled out of bed in his underwear, grabbed an assault rifle, and darted into a small bathroom. “Don’t kill him!” Coronel pleaded again. “He’s the father of my children!” The standoff lasted only a few seconds, with the marines bellowing and Coronel screaming. Then Chapo shouted, “O.K., O.K., O.K., O.K.!” and extended his empty hands through the bathroom doorway.
It had been a stunningly swift operation: less than three minutes after the marines stormed the apartment, Guzmán surrendered.”
At the time, Keefe wrote, “the arrest signified a powerful reassertion of the rule of law in Mexico,” but he also noted that the criminal justice system there remained fragile.
El Chapo’s latest escape has driven that point home. The night after the escape, Keefe appeared on the Charlie Rose Show, where Rose posed a simple question: was the escape inevitable?
“I don’t know if it was inevitable, but it was certainly predictable, and I think that’s the difficult thing here… If you look back at the last time that Guzmán escaped from prison, the story was, in 2001, that he snuck out in a laundry cart, but it’s been said by many that in fact he just walked out the front door. After that escape in 2001, 71 people who worked at that prison were charged with complicity, including the warden of the prison at that time. And I have the feeling that in the coming days and months, we’ll have a similar kind of experience here, where you’ll be looking at: how wide is this complicity, and how high does it go?”
The interview with Rose is available in full here, and Keefe spoke further about the escape with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. In an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered with Robert Siegel, meanwhile, Keefe discussed the larger implications of El Chapo’s escape for the Sinaloa cartel and for the United States:
“I think there’s been a tendency for both the Mexican and U.S. authorities to want to pursue what they call a decapitation strategy where you would go after the people who run these cartels. And yet, when you talk to the drug warriors about this, most of them will tell you—if they’re being candid—that knocking out the head of the organization won’t necessarily stop the flow of drugs.”
Even if El Chapo is recaptured, the Sinaloa cartel could continue to be a powerful force in Mexico—and the importance of reporting from writers like Keefe will continue along with it.
Photo Credit: Day Donaldson, http://thespeaker.co/crime/mexican-drug-kingpin-joaquin-el-chapo-guzman-escapes-again/