The dense hills of Sinaloa, Mexico, were home to the most powerful drug lord since Pablo Escobar: Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Guzman was among the world’s ten most wanted men and also appeared on Forbes magazine’s 2009 billionaire list. With his massive wealth, his army of professional killers, and a network of informants that reached into the highest levels of government, catching Guzman was once considered impossible
Newly isolated by infighting amongst the cartels, and with Mexican and DEA authorities closing in, El Chapo was vulnerable as never before. Newsweek correspondent Malcolm Beith had spent years reporting on the drug wars and followed the chase with full access to senior officials and exclusive interviews with soldiers and drug traffickers in the region, including members of Guzman’s cartel. The Last Narco combines fearless reporting with the story of El Chapo’s legendary rise from a poor farming family to the “capo” of the world’s largest drug empire.
“The Last Narco gracefully captures the heroic struggle of those who dare to stand up to the cartels, and the ways those cartels have tragically corrupted every aspect of Mexican law enforcement.” —Laura Bickford, producer, Traffic
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The Great Escape
Prison guard Jaime Sanchez Flores made his usual rounds at 9.15 p.m. at Puente Grande. Nothing was amiss, everyone was in his place.
There was reason to be especially vigilant. Earlier that Friday, 19 January 2001, a group of high-ranking Mexican officials had visited the maximum-security facility, located in the central state of Jalisco. Leading the delegation was Jorge Tello Peon, the nation's deputy police chief, and high among his concerns was one inmate in particular: Joaquin Archivaldo 'El Chapo' Guzman Loera.
Chapo had been in Puente Grande since 1995, having been transferred there two years after his capture in Guatemala. Although he had been behind bars for nearly eight years, and had never tried to break out, there was good reason for Tello Peon to be worried. Just days before the officials' 19 January visit, the Mexican Supreme Court had ruled that criminals tried in Mexico could be more easily extradited to the United States.
Chapo, facing drug trafficking indictments north of the border, could soon find himself on the way to a maximum-security prison in the United States.
No drug trafficker wanted to face such a fate, and Tello Peon knew it. So did Chapo. Within the towering whitewashed walls of Puente Grande, Chapo could still run his business with little difficulty. Corruption in the prison was rampant, and Chapo's status as one of Mexico's most formidable narcos was indisputable – even if he was locked away in a Mexican jail.
But in the United States, Chapo would face real justice, with real consequences. It was every narco's fear, to be cut off from his closest cronies, his network – to be moved out of the Mexican system that was so riddled with corruption. During the 1980s, Colombia's drug lords had fought a terror campaign in order to beat down extradition laws; Mexico's drug lords were of a similar mindset. Chapo would not go to the United States.
Minutes after Sanchez Flores did his last rounds, the lights went out in the cells at the facility, which held 508 prisoners. At the time, Puente Grande was one of three maximum-security penitentiaries in Mexico, equipped with 128 of the best closed-circuit TV cameras – they monitored every corner of the jail – and alarm systems available. The cameras were all operated from outside the prison itself, and no one on the site had access to the controls. In the hallways, only one door could be open at a time – each was electronically controlled.
Between forty-five minutes and an hour after Sanchez Flores last checked up on the drug lord, a guard named Francisco Camberos Rivera, a.k.a. 'El Chito', opened Chapo's electronically locked cell.
The high-priority prisoner waltzed down the hall and hopped into a laundry cart, which El Chito wheeled right out of Cell Block C3. They took a right, and headed down to the next level of the prison. Most of the electronic doors opened easily, as the circuits had been cut. Others were broken and didn't work anyway, so they just swung open. One door had been propped open with an old shoe – hardly the epitome of maximum security that the government claimed.
El Chito and Chapo – still in the cart – turned towards Cell Block B3, but the guard quickly realized that was a bad move. There were still people in the dining area, probably guards having a late meal. So El Chito chose a seemingly risky route, going through the hallway lined with observation rooms – which was normally also filled with guards – towards the main exit.
They passed into the area in which visitors and all those who enter the prison during daylight hours are searched from head to toe. The on-duty guard asked El Chito where he was going.
Taking out the laundry, like I always do, the guard replied.
The on-duty officer stuck his hands deep in the cart – but not deep enough. All he felt were clothes and sheets. He waved them through; Chapo was wheeled out of the gates.
Only one guard was monitoring the car park, and he was indoors behind a glass pane with his nose buried in paperwork at his desk. Chapo shed his beige prison jumpsuit and shoes and hopped out of the cart, into the boot of a nearby Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
El Chito dropped the cart off just inside the main gate, as he always did when taking out the laundry, and got behind the wheel of the getaway car. They began their drive out of Puente Grande.
A guard stopped them as they tried to leave the car park. But his shift was about to end, and he was in no mood to do his job thoroughly. He had a quick look inside the vehicle, ignoring the boot, and waved El Chito through. The guard and Chapo drove away down Zapotlanejo Avenue.
Chapo was free.
El Chito's role wasn't finished yet. Chapo got into the passenger seat, and told his young accomplice that he would be better off fleeing with him, given that the ensuing newspaper and television headlines, not to mention the manhunts, would all include him.
Worried, El Chito mulled this over as he kept driving. When they arrived on the outskirts of Guadalajara, Chapo told the guard he was thirsty. El Chito went into a shop to buy him a bottle of water.
When he got back to the car, Chapo was gone.
Throughout the whole affair, no alarms in Puente Grande had sounded. The guards in the looming towers of the prison, with their 360-degree view of the area, had seen nothing. Inside, their colleagues carried on their night-time inspections as if nothing had occurred.
At 11.35 p.m., prison warden Leonardo Beltran Santana received a phone call. Chapo wasn't in his cell, a guard told him. Panic ensued among the prison staff, and they began a search of the facility, cell by cell, room by room, closet by closet. It would be another five hours before Tello Peon would be informed of the break.
Tello Peon's first thought – rightly – was that the system had broken down. Corruption had long been rampant within Mexico's prison walls, and only corruption could have allowed Chapo to escape so easily. That had been the precise reason for his visit – to check the prison for signs of guards' collusion with Chapo and his narco cohorts. Prior to 19 January, there had been rumours that Chapo would try to break out, but no concrete evidence of a plan being put into action. As a result, Tello Peon had ordered that Chapo be transferred to a different wing of the prison after his visit, but this order had not yet been carried out.
'This is treason against the security system and the country,' Tello Peon declared that Saturday morning, as the nation woke up to headlines of Chapo's Hollywood-style escape. Fuming, livid, the police official vowed to launch a nationwide hunt for this man, to catch Chapo no matter what, to punish all those responsible.
He began at Puente Grande. Seventy-three guards, custodians and even the warden were detained for questioning. Under Mexican law, they would be held for forty days by decree of a judge, in order for the Attorney General's Office to investigate them thoroughly for alleged complicity in the escape.
In towns near by, the police and Army began their searches. They ransacked houses, ranches, even government buildings, but found little – traces of drug traffickers, guns, money, drugs, but not Chapo.
The hunt spilled over into Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city, located just over five miles away. There, at the home of one of Chapo's associates, federal police found military-issue weapons, phones and computers, and $65,000 in cash – but still no Chapo. Anonymous tips led them to Mazamitla, a few miles south of Guadalajara, where they searched seventeen houses and four ranches from top to bottom. The people of Mazamitla were harbouring Chapo, or so the authorities had been told, but no, he wasn't to be found there either.
Within days, it was clear that Chapo must have fled the immediate area. The hunt would have to be extended nationwide, with hundreds of federal police and soldiers scattering everywhere from major cities to tiny pueblos in the sierras and dusty border towns, all searching for the one man who had so embarrassed the government with his escape. As far north as Tamaulipas and all the way to the southern border with Guatemala, checkpoints were reinforced.
Authorities in Guatemala were put on alert. US agencies – the FBI among them – were called in to help in the manhunt north of the border, on the off-chance the drug kingpin had made it safely into the United States in the confusion following the breakout. The public was laughing at newly elected President Vicente Fox over Chapo's disappearance. Fox, meanwhile, was furious and frustrated, as his prison system had been proven useless. No resource would be spared to catch the fugitive.
Chapo, meanwhile, was throwing a party in Badiraguato with his old partners in crime.
The DEA was furious. Cooperation between Mexico and the United States had begun to improve during the Fox administration – Chapo's escape was 'an affront to the efforts to strengthen and honour the rule of law', fumed then-DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson.
Some DEA agents took his evasion personally, too. They and their Mexican counterparts had lost lives trying to capture drug kingpins, and now Chapo had simply been allowed to walk out of jail. It was a 'huge discouragement to law enforcement efforts'.
Good Life within the Gates
The day Chapo set foot into Puente Grande on 22 November 1995, he laid down the law. He would approach prison guards and employees, often individually, and ask if they knew who he was. Has your supervisor told you about me? Would you be willing to work for us? It wasn't really a question, and they would be compensated well. Even cleaners and kitchen personnel were paid off, receiving anywhere between $100 and $5,000 for their collaboration.
Money was no object: Chapo's allies in Sinaloa were sending him regular quantities of cash. Soon, Chapo and his cronies had set up a system whereby prison staff would even do the recruiting for them. 'I present you another person who is going to work for us,' the guard would tell Chapo upon introducing a new recruit. The names and roles were duly noted by one of Chapo's secretaries, who were also prisoners.
Although Chapo's men kept a log with details on each person's role, specific jobs weren't always assigned to those on the payroll. Sometimes they were paid per job; almost always, the sum was delivered monthly. One of Chapo's cohorts would write down a code ('I have a delivery from the school principal,' was one such message, which meant the guard was to pick up his pay at a pre-designated spot in Guadalajara) on a napkin, and hand it over to one of their employees.
The idea was to have the whole prison at the drug lord's beck and call. Chapo wanted to run Puente Grande as if it were his, and nothing would stop him. He would bide his time until the moment came to leave.
And bide his time he did. At first, prison guards recall, the demands were small – more like requests. Chapo and his cronies wanted a little special something for dinner: could the cooks whip something up? A ladyfriend was visiting: would they be allowed a little extra time for a conjugal visit?
Gradually, Puente Grande became Chapo's personal playground. Parties in the cell block housing him and his main cohort, Hector Luis Palma Salazar, a.k.a. 'El Guero' (the Blond), became common-place. They wandered wherever they liked within the walls of Puente Grande, also known as the Cefereso No. 2, and enjoyed smuggled alcohol, cocaine and marijuana, not to mention conjugal visits by women other than their wives and girlfriends. Chapo had a fondness for whiskey and Cuba Libres (rum and cokes).
They feasted on specially cooked meals – the kitchen staff were his employees, after all – and paid little attention to the rules of the maximum-security facility. Two cooks in particular, Oswaldo Benjamin Gomez Contreras and Ofelia Contreras Gonzalez, were responsible for preparing 'feasts' for Chapo, according to the Mexican Attorney General's Office, which is commonly referred to by its Spanish acronym, the PGR. The cooks would later be charged with drug-related crimes, in which they had become involved while at Puente Grande under Chapo's command.
On at least one occasion, a mariachi band was brought in to perform for Chapo and his fellow prisoners. For a Christmas Eve party, recalled one prison guard after Chapo's escape, more than 500 litres of wine were trucked in for a similarly private fiesta. They dined on lobster soup, filet mignon and a selection of cheeses, and drank whiskey and soda long into the night.
Sometimes the fun and games were competitive: Chapo liked to play chess with one inmate in particular, a former member of the presidential guard who had succumbed to corruption. He also played basketball and volleyball. 'He was good at everything,' recalls the inmate. Chapo was in top physical shape for a man in his early forties; he was also blessed with 'astonishing willpower'.
Chapo apparently had a lighter side, too. Sometimes musical groups that played Sinaloan banda would turn up at the prison; an avid dancer, the drug lord adored them. On occasion, Puente Grande's dining hall would be converted into a cinema; Chapo and other inmates would watch film after film on a big screen while eating popcorn, ice cream and chocolates. Chapo was a bit soppy at times, according to one inmate. 'We watched Cinderella together, eating popcorn. Just imagine.'
Word began to leak out about the parties and goings-on at Puente Grande, which became something of a national joke in a country where the prison system was already in dire need of reform. To this day, there exist unconfirmed reports that Chapo was regularly allowed to leave the prison at weekends, to visit friends, cohorts and family near by. Jose Antonio Bernal Guerrero, a local human rights official, has insisted publicly that Chapo was allowed to enter and exit the prison whenever he liked during his internment.
Mexico's prisons have never been famous for being securely run institutions, but Puente Grande in the 1990s was a farce. When Chapo arrived, 'security and discipline in the Cefereso 2 fell apart', recalls prison guard Claudio Julian Rios Peralta. There was discipline of a kind, but not from the prison staff.
On the off-chance money wasn't enough to convince a guard or fellow inmate to comply with Chapo's every whim, threats would ensure they did. Those who didn't want to work for Chapo were reported to Jaime Leonardo Valencia Fontes, a prisoner who operated as the drug lord's closest 'secretary'.
Valencia would approach the reluctant prisoner or guard: 'Listen, they say you are annoyed and don't want our friendship. Don't worry, here we have ...'
He would then take out a laptop and a hand-held electronic organizer, and show it to the offender. Then he would continue: '... the details of your residence and your family. There's no problem.'
After that, almost everyone complied. A baseball-bat-wielding group of thugs known as 'the Batters' took care of those who didn't.
Chapo and his crew were also supplied regularly with women, from both inside and outside Puente Grande. There was a procedure for picking up prostitutes. Someone on Chapo's payroll would head to the bars in Guadalajara at night, and select several women, who would be driven back to a meeting point near Puente Grande. There, a senior guard, who was paid $3,000 a month for his role as a pseudo-pimp, drove them into the prison in a truck. His presence meant there would be no search, but he carried extra money just in case he needed to bribe his subordinates to bring in extra alcohol or drugs.
For two hours in the evenings, Chapo and the other narcoinmates would close off the dining hall and have sex with their chosen women. The dining hall was converted into a 'hotel', according to testimony from one prison employee. Sometimes, the women would be allowed up to their cells. The rooms designated for conjugal visits were rarely used.
Women inside Puente Grande were fair game, too, and it appears Chapo actually had a charming side. In a 2001 interview, kitchen worker Ives Erendira Arreola recalled how the drug lord had wooed her. It was June of the year before, and she was working in Cell Block 2. According to his fellow inmates, he had first spotted thirty-eight-year-old Erendira about a month before, and enquired about her. Where was she from? Did she have family, kids? Was she married? Could she be transferred to work in Cell Block 3, where he was housed?
When he finally walked up to the shy kitchen employee in June and introduced himself, Erendira's boss knew exactly what he was after. She and her colleagues encouraged Erendira – it was, after all, a way to make money, and Erendira was a single mother from a poor town near by. Left unsaid was the fact that turning Chapo down could only lead to trouble.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Last Narco"
Copyright © 2010 Malcolm Beith.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Glossary of Terms,
1. The Great Escape,
2. The Blame Game,
3. From Gomeros to Gods,
4. The Godfather,
5. Chapo's Rise,
6. 'Breaking the Neck of Destiny',
7. The General,
8. The War,
9. Land Grab,
10. Law, Disorder,
11. The End of the Alliance,
12. The Ghost,
13. The New Wave,
14. United States of Fear,
15. Sinaloa Inc.,
16. The End Game,