By Daniel Hernandez
The entrance to the tunnel that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman used to escape from prison is located at an abandoned cinder-block building with a metal roof and a dirt floor. There is a wheelbarrow filled with dirt, rusted old wire sheeting standing in columns, mounds of construction materials, and a few clotheslines.
Near a wall, a rectangular entrance carved with wooden beams in the ground just wide enough for a grown adult’s shoulders calls to a wooden ladder below. A few rungs of that brings a visitor to just below ground-level, and the discovery that it is actually a ditch with a wooden roof and dirt laid over it to simulate ground above.
This is the first level of Chapo’s escape construction.
Already the air is damp and full of dangling particles of dirt. A large electrical regulator the size of tiny car has gathered dust. Piles of dirt, wood, fiberglass insulator, and debris hint that the construction crew here was in a hurry.
In a corner in the ground is the second descent, a wooden frame down a second wood ladder fitted to the wall of earth as securely as any other ladder should be. Just above it is a mechanical pulley that must have been used to lift up dirt from the excavation below.
A climb down of roughly 25 feet brings a visitor to the floor of the mile-long tunnel that authorities say Guzman, the leader of the global drug trafficking network known as the Sinaloa cartel, used to escape on July 11.
Guzman, a native of a tiny farming village called La Tuna in the highlands of the western state of Sinaloa, Mexico, is now a wanted man once more.
It’s a scenario that has embarrassed the entire government of Mexico and resulted in an unusually quiet response from the US government, which supplies Mexico’s enforcement campaign against drug cartels with billions of dollars in aid and weapons.
US intelligence led to Guzman’s capture in February 2014 in the Pacific resort of Mazatlan, after days in which he eluded authorities through a system of tunnels in the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacan. Guzman was eventually caught more than thirteen years after he escaped from another federal prison in Mexico in January 2001.
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is accused of being the figurehead of the Sinaloa cartel’s multi-billion dollar network of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine trafficking. His influence extends over much of western and northern Mexico and into neighboring countries in Central America, in addition to Europe, Asia, and Australia.
The city of Chicago calls him “Public Enemy Number 1.”
The drug lord is also considered a master tunnel builder along the US-Mexico border, with at least 80 identified by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, most of them tied to the Sinaloa cartel.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that Guzman would use a tunnel as a means for escaping,” Joe Garcia, a former ICE agent in San Diego, told the Union-Tribune. “The tunnels continue to get ramped up in sophistication.”
In Mexico, local press reports were now referring to Guzman as “The Lord of the Tunnels.”
Authorities on Wednesday permitted small groups of journalists to spend just a few minutes inside a length of the tunnel only fifteen or so feet deep. A federal investigator in a forensics suit set a plastic pail as a limit to entering further. He declined to be identified, but said the tunnel is 1,425 meters long, or just 0.88 of a mile.
On the Altiplano prison side, Mexico’s interior minister said the tunnel that led from Chapo’s shower stall to this level is 19 meters down, or 62 feet. That means the designers of the tunnel must have surveyed the area around the prison to determine what depth to dig. It is much more shallow at the abandoned shed where the tunnel ends.
The engineers behind the tunnel also made it to be just high enough to permit Chapo — which means “Shorty” — to stand. That makes it about 5 feet, 6 inches high, although the ceiling is uneven.
Related: Mexico Releases Footage of ‘Chapo’ Escape, But Will Public Believe It?
A ventilation system runs through PVC piping that rises to the regulator area and runs against the ceiling of the tunnel below. There is also an electrical wiring system.
A few nails jut from the moist earth of the ceiling, and scattered deep holes mark the uneven walls. The investigator said he couldn’t explain the nails and holes, but said they might signal the use of heavy machinery in the construction of the tunnel.
On Wednesday, officials said they would allow journalists to descend, but only at personal risk. Investigators said the tunnel was basically meant for a single use by one individual, and the wooden roof over the lobby ditch and the ladder to the deeper hole below was already showing signs of overuse. The tunnel to the prison was not reinforced, they warned.
Related: The DEA Knew ‘Chapo’ Posed a Flight Risk, but Mexico’s Government Ignored Warnings
Of course, the most striking aspect of the tunnel is the motorized vehicle that authorities say Chapo used to race to freedom.
The modified motorcycle is fitted to a metal railing and was presumably used during the tunnel’s construction to remove tons and tons of earth. It does not have a front tire, and uses both a gas-powered motor and a bicycle mechanism to move backward and forward.
On the Saturday night that Chapo ducked into a tunnel in his shower and disappeared, the motorbike was waiting for him below. Authorities say Guzman smashed the tunnel’s light bulbs along the way to darken the path for anyone who might be chasing him.
Yes, authorities at the site marveled to reporters, the contraption is definitely ingenious.
Rafael Castillo contributed to this report.
Follow Daniel Hernandez on Twitter: @longdrivesouth