The story of El Chapo's escape from prison in a laundry cart and his triumphant return to Sinaloa
The cover of El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World's Most Notorious Drug Baron, Noah Hurowitz
In 2001, the king of the Sinaloa cartel known as El Chapo escaped from Mexico's maximum security prison, Puente Grande.
He is now serving a life sentence in Colorado.
This is an excerpt from El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World's Most Notorious Drug Lord by Noah Hurowitz. The book is available now.
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In early 2001, Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug trafficker better known as El Chapo, decided that he no longer wanted to stay in prison.
El Chapo has been in Puente Grande, the maximum security prison outside the city of Guadalajara, since 1995 and was incarcerated for his role in a bloody shooting in 1993 at Guadalajara Airport. And he was fine in Puente Grande, having enjoyed many of the same amenities as outdoors during his years in Puente Grande - good food, women, volleyball - and unlike his life outside, he even had ... sleep in the same place every night. Much of this was thanks to his patronage by Dámaso López Nuñez, who had assumed the position of Deputy Director of Security in 1999 and was even more indulgent than his predecessor in ensuring that all of El Chapo's needs were met. When Dámaso arrived, El Chapo immediately began to shower them with money and gifts: ten thousand dollars in cash here, a house there. When one of Dámaso's children was injured in an accident, it was El Chapo who paid the child's medical bills.
"When I needed something, I asked and he gave it to me," said Dámaso years later.
Unfortunately for El Chapo, Dámaso left Puente Grande in the fall of 2000, amid a cloud of suspicion and drastically belated government efforts to investigate corruption there. And on January 18, 2001, everything changed for El Chapo when the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that the United States could extradite Mexican prisoners like El Chapo while the death penalty was off the table. His worst fear, an American prison cell, was suddenly much closer to reality.
A seller in Sinaloa state, El Chapo's birthplace, Mexico, shortly before his 2019 conviction. Pedro Pardo / AFP via Getty Images
So he went the next day, smuggled out the door, got stuck in a laundry cart that was wheeled to freedom by a guard named El Chito. And no one thought it was right to stop him.
In the book Narcoland, journalist Anabel Hernandez argues that the story of the linen trolley was a great story invented after the escape to hide the real story: that El Chapo simply walked out the door. Others have joined Hernandez, speculating that the laundry cart story was a fanciful tale made up to cover up a more mundane escape made possible by systemic corruption. (Years later, when El Chapo was finally tried in a U.S. federal court in Brooklyn, the laundry trolley theory was recounted by several former accomplices.)
Whether El Chapo was rolled out or left in a stolen guard uniform, it was his ability to buy the right people that enabled him to escape.
El Chapo was back. Within a few days, he held a series of meetings with his partners, including the man who would become his staunchest ally in the years that followed, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada García. At one of the first meetings at a lieutenant's ranch, El Mayo made it clear that he fully supports El Chapo.
"I'm one hundred percent with you," said El Mayo. “I will help you with everything you need. And of every kilo of cola I get from Colombia, I'll give you half.
The Mexican Federal Police patrol the area around the Puente Grande State Prison. Hector Guerrero / AFP via Getty Images
But the question was where. El Chapo was traveling with a hard-to-hide retinue of armed men, and his face was featured on televisions and newspapers across Mexico. Where could he lie down without attracting attention?
El Mayo had an idea.
"Let's go to Sinaloa," said El Mayo. "Let's go back to your home countries."
On a peak that rises above La Tuna, a wreath of cypress trees sits enthroned like a crown and blows weakly in the wind. From below, across the valley, the trees are all you can see of "El Cielo" or the heavens, the house El Chapo built for himself.
It's a haven that he never really got to enjoy, but which he did visit from time to time to sneak into his hometown to throw a party or visit his mom.
El Chapo is pictured on July 10, 1993 in the Mexican prison in La Palma after he was arrested. STR / AFP / GettyImages
It is now vacant. With El Chapo serving a life sentence in a Supermax federal prison in Colorado, it is unlikely that he will ever set foot here again. (But don't tell his mother - the family once kicked out a television reporter who had the boldness to ask Doña Consuelo directly what she thought of her son spending the rest of his life in prison.)
However, if he were released from prison, he might want to go to this mountaintop retreat. When he escaped from Puente Grande prison in January 2001, El Chapo returned to El Cielo to plan his new empire - and to see his mother.
It looked good for him then. He was free, back in the mountains where he had grown up and started, where much of the population loved and supported him, and where the remoteness and rugged terrain provided a natural defense that made it relatively easy for him to get away move around.
He moved coke again, and so did marijuana and heroin - there was always more money to be made in cocaine, but his sanctuary's local economy still depended heavily on the production of those two reliable crops, the red poppy-studded mound of flowers and fragrant stems of cannabis .
By buying these drugs from local farmers, he was able to make a handsome profit, support the local business, and acquire a permanent base of support. Who's going to turn on the guy who pays wholesale for his crops?
Among the farmers El Chapo bought from at the time was a man named José *, a sociable father of three, who was born and raised and still lived in a small town near the motorway. (Names marked with an asterisk are pseudonyms.)
Maria Consuelo Loera, El Chapo's mother, is leaving the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City in 2019 after applying for a visa to visit her son. Ronaldo Schemidt / AFP via Getty Images
Like El Chapo, José and his neighbors learned from their fathers how to grow grass and opium, and used proven methods to grow the crops on small plots in the hills above their village. In the early 2000s, José was working on land roughly the size of about five soccer fields. The area was under the protection - or control - of El Chapo, to whom José and other farmers paid a 30% tax in exchange for protection from soldiers who would otherwise raid the area, burn grain and smoke up months of labor would let.
For several years after escaping from Puente Grande, José did not meet the man to whom he was paying taxes. But that changed for good in 2005 when, due to lack of funds, he decided to make a proposal. A friend agreed to do the show and they drove up the highway together, onto the gravel road and on to La Tuna. When El Chapo received it, José made his suggestion: What if El Chapo covered the cost of the planting and then they shared the later profit with fifty and fifty?
El Chapo readily agreed; he was just that type of guy, remembered José.
"He was a very simple man and very natural," said José. "You just wanted to talk to him, never found him aggressive."
The relationship between the heavy traffickers and the people who grow opium and weed is seldom balanced and can be downright feudal at times: growers rarely have a wide choice of who to sell to so that buyers can set the price. The exchange is a constant negotiation and often involves a certain degree of coercion - be it through the direct threat or exemption from violence, or by the local boss withdrawing his protection and exposing the peasant to the full anger of a state, i. technical, dedicated to obliterate the farmer's existence.
A cemetery known for the many prominent drug traffickers who are buried there is located on a hill in Santiago de los Caballeros in the Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Until recently, smallholders like José formed the backbone of the opium and marijuana industries. (That status quo has been turned on its head in recent years when widespread legalization of marijuana in the United States and the introduction of synthetic opioids like fentanyl into the heroin supply have seen the prices of both plants drop sharply.)
As in any good capitalist system, peasants did most of the work and were at the greatest risk from the state. It pays off well, better than most legal work; But by the time a stamp of heroin or a bag of weed is sold on the streets of New York or Philadelphia, only about 1% of the total profit goes back to the farmer.
The real profits, the billions of dollars that flow from street sales to money launderers to the bogus companies and bank accounts of human traffickers, do not flow into the small villages in the mountains of Sinaloa or Guerrerro or the streets of the border towns through which drag the drugs on their way north. But most of the violence of the drug war falls on the heads of these smallholders.
Origin stories of drug trafficking in Sinaloa often highlight the region's legacy of upheaval, bandits, and rebellion. But the early Sinaloa drug trafficking clans were barely treated as outlaws.
The Mexican sociologist Luís Astorga writes that the early Mexican drug traffickers emerged from the state power structure and not as actors outside of it. They came at a time when that power structure was itself taking shape, and they managed to negotiate a cozy little box in it that worked for the state, for the wealthy elite, and for the drug traffickers and breeders. To a limited extent, it also worked well for the poor farmers who lived in areas like Sinaloa.
The Sierra has a proud tradition of independence and autonomy, and drug trafficking has allowed the people of the Golden Triangle to continue to fend for themselves for the most part without posing a real threat. The drug traffickers who came before El Chapo acted as local power brokers and played a key role as unofficial intermediaries between the government and the people of the Sierra. The government allowed them to get rich in drug trafficking as long as the smugglers kept a relative peace in the rural areas and got the local peasants to show up to vote for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
The author Noah Hurowitz Jacqueline Hall
José and others in the Sinaloa highlands speak of those years right after El Chapo's escape as a kind of golden age, when you knew who was running things and looking the boss in the eyes, making a deal with him and then having a pleasant conversation. Meanwhile, El Chapo José, who played in a band in his spare time, often paid for his parties. It felt good to hang out with a guy like El Chapo, José said, to be in the presence of someone who was considered great in the area.
"He really is a legend, a legend," said José. "It was a privilege to speak to him, to have a friendship with him, as I did."
Even when José presented the version disinfected for gringo reporters, many people in the mountains of Badiraguato only knew this side of El Chapo, the magnanimous local chief. This area of Sinaloa was spared the violence of the drug trade - and the war on drugs - in other areas of Mexico for many years. And when violence did occur it was usually in the form of the heavy hand of the state, rather than the cruelty of drug killers.
But while El Chapo spread his benevolence in his hometown and the surrounding villages, he and his allies exercised violence elsewhere. Because when El Chapo returned to La Tuna in 2001 and began rebuilding his empire, he was a man who was out for revenge.
* * *
Excerpt from El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World's Most Notorious Drug Lord, published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2021 by Noah Hurowitz.
Noah Hurowitz is a journalist based in New York City. He covered the trial of El Chapo for Rolling Stone.
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