The Rise and Fall of the Tunnel Rat King
Guzmán’s Underground Underworld was his Undoing
The one seminal innovation of el Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel is the drug tunnel. The Sinaloa cartel disrupted the traditional drug smuggling approach which bottlenecks at border crossings. In the best startup tradition, they simply ignored all the rules and regulations in their vertical and routed around the friction. They dug tunnels under the border and brought their product to market with fewer losses. At that point, it was simply a matter of scaling up.
Guzman was so enamored of drug tunnels that his organisation built over 90 of them. This was a technology that worked, and it worked well. His organisation was proficient at digging tunnels. The deep technical expertise that the Sinaloa cartel developed over the decades (starting in 1990) wasn’t applied only to purely commercial enterprises.
Guzman wanted escape tunnels.
Escape Tunnels Are Kinda My Thing, Baby
Like some demented Bond villain, el Chapo fell hard for escape tunnels. Every house he owned ended up with some variety of tunnel. He had so many dug, they became his signature move.
In February 2014, the authorities arrived at a house in Culiacán only to find a signature Chapo trick — a tunnel entrance beneath a bathtub — through which the kingpin had just fled.
These enabled him to avoid arrest by slipping out before raids. How was he alerted before raids, one might ask? Well, when a criminal has enough money, he invests some of it with the security forces. The security forces are then more polite about their visits, and call in advance to make sure he’ll be home.
Undisputed World Tunnel Champion, Prison Escape Division
We know Guzman has a thing for tunnels. He used them to run his business, he used them to evade capture, and he used them to escape jail. This last one was a masterpiece of illicit tunnel art. It was a mile long, had ventilation, lighting, and a motorbike powered light rail. It ran from a property within sight of the prison walls to exactly underneath Guzman’s shower, behind the modesty wall built to give him some privacy. That is extremely precise engineering work.
Executives Gone Wild
Guzman was on the loose, shuttling around between his various safe houses in his native stronghold, and the security forces were constantly a step behind. Raiding houses that he had vacated. Arriving just as he was leaving (via tunnel, of course). This sort of game can go on for years with everyone getting tired and cranky from too little rest.
Guzman faced particular difficulties while on the run. Firstly, he was still running a multi billion dollar business with dealings in 50 countries. He had business competitors to deal with, as well as the normal day to day running of his business. Running this business required him to communicate with people. His lawyers, his lieutenants, his business partners, etc. All of this activity means that he was creating a digital trail, a signature, that could be tracked. Once the security forces had a lock on him, they could conduct a raid… only to find the tunnel that he’d used to escape.
Secondly, he was running a vanity project, a film biopic. This meant that he had to communicate with his lawyers, as well as civilians with no experience in clandestine activity. Guzman made some mistakes in providing one of these civilians, Kate del Castillo, with a BlackBerry that could communicate directly with him. Through intercepts on this device the security forces were able to get a specific lock on where el Chapo would be, and when he would be there. But, again, too slow. Plus, a tunnel.
Third problem for Guzman. He needed an entourage. He had bodyguards, security guards, cooks, lieutenants, and hangers on. This is a large footprint. When you’re trying to keep a low profile, having a dozen guys with guns hanging around really doesn’t help.
Federales Hate Him! Guzman Escapes With This One Weird Trick
The Mexican security forces tracked not just el Chapo himself, but also his associates. For example, the chief tunnel builder who architected the legendary prison escape tunnel. In September 2015, this master of tunnel construction was trailed to a house in Los Mochis. Shortly afterwards, extensive construction work began. Builders were onsite for weeks, working on “renovations.”
You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war
At this point, it is clear to anyone who has been paying attention, this house is being converted into a classic Guzman safe house, complete with escape tunnels. Indeed, by now even Guzman knew they were onto his trick, so he had a fake tunnel constructed to throw security forces off the scent.
A sweep of the house revealed two tunnels: one beneath the refrigerator, a false tunnel meant to confuse the advancing troops. The other was in a bedroom closet.
Telephone intercepts from the new safehouse indicated that someone important was going to be arriving soon. The identity was disguised using a simple open code, referring to the VIP as “aunt” or “grandma.” It is worth noting that this “aunt” designation for a mafia don has been used before, to hilarious effect.
Taco Tuesdays is on Thursday
After construction was complete, the safehouse was quiet. Until 7 January 2016, when a car arrives carrying unknown passengers. Security forces suspected that this was Guzman. There was one final indicator that someone important enough to require an entourage was inside. A white van went off, at midnight, to fetch enough tacos to feed a large group of people. The police raided the house 4 hours later.
Daryl Zero: A few words here about following people. People know they’re being followed when they turn around and see someone following them. They can’t tell they’re being followed if you get there first.