The audacious escape of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán from the maximum security penitentiary El Altiplano on Saturday was nearly a year long in the planning and would have involved engineers, construction workers and access to classified architectural plans.
The notorious leader of the Sinaloa Cartel escaped through a 1.5-kilometer-long tunnel between the shower in his cell and a house under construction in the nearby neighborhood of Santa Juana in Almoloya, State of México.
Guzmán received scheduled medications at around 8:00pm on Saturday and was last seen 52 minutes later when he entered the shower in his cell, disappearing at the place where the surveillance camera had a blind spot.
The alarm was raised when Guzmán didn’t appear again. Guards entered the cell only to find it empty, its occupant having exited by means of a ladder leading down a 10-meter vertical tunnel, topped by a 50 by 50-centimeter manhole in the shower area, just out of sight of the surveillance camera.
The tunnel is over 1,500 meters long with a height of 1.7 meters and a width of 70 to 80 centimeters. It is equipped with electric power, a ventilation system and a modified motorcycle that ran on rails, possibly used to transport the excavated material and by El Chapo himself to reach the other end.
For the construction of the tunnel, consulted engineers calculated that over 2,000 cubic meters of soil had to be cleared and transported in approximately 300 dump trucks.
Using the same calculations, the construction of the tunnel could have been completed between two months and 300 days, the latter being the most plausible time frame, involving just one dump truck trip per day with two workers digging for eight to 10 hours and advancing 4.3 meters and extracting 7 cubic meters.
Despite the stealth under which the tunnel would have been excavated and built, pneumatic hammer drills had to be used within El Chapo’s cell, and with an operational noise between 100 to 140 decibels, there could have been nothing stealthy about that part of the process.
At the other end of the tunnel, a house under construction proved to be the ideal cover for the workers and trucks, and the corn fields between the house and the penitentiary hid the trips the trucks must have made.
The cost of the excavation itself has been estimated at about 1 million pesos (US $63,000), with an additional 500,000 pesos needed to install the electrical wiring, ventilation system and rails.
People with inside knowledge of the penitentiary’s structure, or who had access to its construction plans, must have been involved in the prison break. Such plans are highly classified and their access restricted.
In order for El Chapo’s escape plan to succeed, he had to remain indefinitely at the Altiplano penitentiary. To achieve this, his legal team fought a two-front battle, one against an extradition order requested by the U.S. government and a second against any transfer request that might send him to another prison.
Joaquín Guzmán has become the only person to have escaped on two occasions from a maximum security penitentiary in Mexico, having broken out of the Puente Grande facility in Jalisco on January 19, 2001.
Guzmán was reapprehended on February 22, 2014, in Mazatlán, Sinaloa.