Life underground | Mexico

Escape through the drain

The notorious Mexican drug lord “El Chapo” escaped through a tunnel from the high-security prison El Altiplano in 2015. How in the world was that possible?

A motorcycle photographed obliquely from behind in a cave underground

On this motorcycle "El Chapo" rode 1.5 km through the underground and escaped from the maximum security prison El Altiplano


When Mexico’s most famous criminal of recent decades escaped, he got away via a tunnel accessed by the fetid drain of his cell shower in what was supposed to be a maximum-security prison.

A nauseating smell emanated from the hole into which Joaquín Guzmán Loera, nicknamed “El Chapo”, squeezed himself. The head of the Sinaloa cartel and Netflix protagonist is now an inmate in a prison in the USA from which it is difficult to imagine him staging another escape.

His prison cell in the maximum security El Altiplano prison in Mexico was small and cold. A few personal belongings, a television, plates and cutlery, a blanket.

The corridor where the cell is located housed other nationally known prison inmates who were guarded around the clock. But silence reigned. It was hard to imagine that the noise of the tunnel boring to the shower drain did not draw attention. 

Criminal organisations in Mexico over the decades have invented a whole range of methods to expand their illegal businesses, get their people out of jail, secure drug shipments, and keep people-trafficking and extortion networks running.

They developed new ways to trade and obtain weapons. Criminal machinations became increasingly complex - but they could not have done any of this without accomplices in local governments, commodity traders, the police and other authorities.

“The tunnel had ventilation, lights and an engine to pull the motorbike. Its cost is estimated at US $430,000”

The case of Guzmán Loera, nicknamed “El Chapo” - the little one - because of his short stature, is the best example: without accomplices in government agencies and the ingenuity of his organisation, the head of one of the most important criminal cartels on the American continent would not have succeeded even in his first escape.

This successful coup took place in the Puente Grande prison in the western Mexican state of Jalisco. When El Chapo was transferred there in 1995, he answered the question about his profession by saying he was a farmer. Can a peasant buy the allegiance of an entire maximum security prison and allow himself the luxury of escaping from there in a laundry truck? The breakout on 19 January 2001 was an artful diversionary technique: the media focused on this incident instead of reporting on the structures of El Chapo’s criminal organisation. 

This first prison break changed the image Mexican society had of its criminals until then - from old mafiosos with principles to comic book and movie characters. Guzmán Loera's second escape, on the other hand, was a coldly calculated spectacle that elevated him to hero status and gave rise to clothing brands, television series and advertising deals.

The story is quickly told: On 11 July 2015, the head of a powerful cartel in Mexico escaped from El Altiplano by climbing down the stinking manhole through the drain in his shower. There he swung onto a motorbike and rode on rails through a one-and-a-half kilometre tunnel, at the end of which a kind of bodega or house camouflaged the exit.

The tunnel had ventilation, electric lights and a powerful engine that pulled the motorbike. Its cost is estimated at $430,000. Nearly 300 truckloads of earth were hauled away during the drilling. Guzmán Loera's men had managed to drill underground to the prison without anyone seeing or saying anything - “El Chapo” must have got hold of the prison's construction plans, making all those in his close proximity his accomplices.

Translated by Jess Smee