The story of Chapo Guzmán's celebrated jailbreak just keeps becoming more and more bewildering
NYRB accompanies Alma Guillermoprieto's post with this photo of "a Mexican federal police officer inspecting Chapo Guzmán’s escape tunnel, July 16, 2016."
I've held off trying to deal with the bizarre story of the July 11 jailbreak of master Mexican drug cartelist Chapo Guzmán because there isn't any aspect of the story that makes the tiniest grain of sense, and I kept figuring that if we waited awhile, some missing pieces of the puzzle would begin to form a picture of some sort.
Instead, not just the additional facts but the added speculations have only compounded the confusion and incomprehensibility of what the New York Review of Books' Alma Guillermoprieto describes in a new post, "Guzmán: The Buried Truth," as "an unbroken string of punchlines, arguably the greatest pie-in-the-face embarrassment any Mexican government has ever had to deal with," which has Mexicans "still riffing compulsively about it." (Sample: "A startled Bugs Bunny emerges from his hole; 'You'll never guess who I just ran into!' ")
I was delighted to see that Guillermoprieto, NYRB's crackerjack Latin American correspondent, was weighing in. Alas, in the end she only widens, deepens, and solidifies the confusion. But along the way she adds some interesting detail and speculation.
The official story, which has Chapo dropping out of his cell through that foot-square excavation in the concrete floor of his cell's shower, conveniently hidden from camera view by a short privacy wall, into a 60-foot-deep mile-long tunnel accessible at either end only by a right-angle straight-vertical tunnel to the surface -- which just happened to hit that exact spot in Chapo's cell, all excavated while his cell next-cell neighbor was one of his bitterest enemies, David Cárdenas Guillén, a leader of the self-styled Cartel del Golfo," who would have had every reason to blow the whistle on him but "claimed to have heard no noise of any kind from the neighboring cell -- ever."
I've only scratched the surface of the improbabilities and seeming impossibilities built into the official account. "Millions of Mexicans believe that there is no such tunnel," Guillermoprieto writes, noting that reporters have only been allowed to see a few feet of the alleged tunnel, at either supposed end -- and that even if one wants to believe the official account: "[R]eally, with all the cooperation Guzmán received, and all the money and trickery he must have had to deploy in order to get that tunnel built and precisely choreograph his escape, wouldn’t it have been easier just to stroll out the front door?" Which is, we may recall, the explanation Chapo himself is supposed to have offered to prosecutors for his previous prison escape, which had come with a wildly improbable official "explanation" about his escapingin a laundry cart.
For a while there seemed some promise in a connection between the new escape and the formal request by the U.S. government, less than three weeks earlier, for Chapo's extradition. President Enrique Peña Nieto seemed pretty clear that the Mexican government had no intention of handing Chapo over, but it seemed almost reasonable to speculate that both Chapo and somebody in a position to facilitate an escape weren't so sure, and wanted to make sure that the prisoner wouldn't be in a position to sit down for chinwags with U.S. authorities. The problem, Guillermoprieto notes, is that the tunnel would then have to have been built between June 25 and July 11, when it "appears to have been under construction for at least a year."
Well, there is a theory that takes this into account, sort of:
Guzmán turned himself in voluntarily last year after the government—fearful of what Chapo might tell about his high-level connections in Mexico—agreed not to extradite him. This would also explain the government’s strange initial reluctance to accept loudly-proferred US assistance after Guzmán vanished. This is conspiracy delirium of the highest order, but given the government’s utter failure to account for the many questions surrounding his escape, it’s been as good an explanation as any.
NOW THERE'S A "BREATHTAKING NEW VERSION"! YAY!
It's presented by "the unusually well-sourced and serious weekly magazine Proceso," in its July 19 issue:
According to the magazine, Chapo really was taken prisoner unawares last year in his home state of Sinaloa, but not by Mexican security forces. Instead, he was arrested by DEA agents and US marshals disguised as Mexican marines. This information comes from two unnamed and uncharacterized US sources who spoke to a Proceso reporter in Washington, DC. According to the sources, US intelligence had been successfully tracking Guzmán during the first three weeks of February 2014, thanks to a combination of satellite surveillance and information provided by his associates. On the night of February 22, when Guzmán checked into a quiet beachfront hotel in the resort city of Mazatlán, and had his wife and twin daughters join him, the agents told Proceso they were able to pinpoint the room their intended prey was in.Note that this "breathtaking" backstory still doesn't explain Chapo's jailbreak. Okay, how about this? Guzmán "got wind" of the frustration of the U.S. DoJ which led to the extradition request "and decided it was time to go, whatever means he may have used to do so."
According to Proceso, the US agents notified no one that they were about to arrest Guzmán, except for two Mexican Marines they needed but didn’t quite trust. (The US agents did not provide the marines with details of the operation until they were at the hotel door.) It isn’t clear where, or with whose approval, the agents got the uniforms and three armored cars they used that night, but no government official in Mexico City was notified of the operation—“neither in the Attorney General’s Office nor in the Interior Ministry,” Proceso quotes one of the US officials as saying. “We were afraid that the information would be leaked and as on other occasions the plans would come to nothing,” according to someone identified by the magazine as “one of the officials of the Obama Administration.”
It wasn’t until the helicopter carrying Guzmán to Mexico City was in the air that the US agents “notified the highest levels of the Mexican government of the capture of the Sinaloa capo,” Proceso quotes the officials as saying. When the disguised agents removed their ski masks on landing, the waiting members of the Peña Nieto administration were shocked to see that they were not Mexicans. The episode did not end well for diplomacy; “Our agents shared [the information they had] with [then Mexican Attorney General Jesús] Murillo Karam, but that gentleman, with his anti-Americanism” refused to approve extradition, the Proceso article concludes.
Which is as close as we come to an "explanation." For the rest, Guillermoprieto piles on the improbabilities of the official story (could this hovel of a cell really have been Chapo's, considering the luxury suite he lived in in his previous incarceration? could this supposedly impregnable prison really be built on a foot-thick concrete slab? etc.), along with a reminder that the Mexican government has not only refused proper access to the famous tunnel but has kept all security videos (from their maximum-security prison), which must surely contain relevant information, tightly under wraps.
There seems general agreement that the official Mexican story is in significant part, if not in its entirely, fictional. But, frustratingly, this doesn't seem to bring us any closer to the truth, and the Mexican authorities seem singularly unintereted in allowing any enlightenment, which must itself be an important element of the real story. Whatever it is.
One thing is sure, though. The government government owes its people a way better set of lies. Or is the fact that the authorities don't care if anyone believes them also part of the story. Whatever it is.