Can El Chapo Escape Again?

The world’s most notorious drug lord has one last chance to save his empire, and his life.

Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin Guzman Loera aka "el Chapo Guzman", is escorted by marines as he is presented to the press on February 22, 2014 in Mexico City.
Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera is escorted by marines as he is presented to the press in Mexico City on Feb. 22, 2014.

Ronaldo Schemidt/Getty Images

This article is part of a series published in cooperation with the Mexican magazine Letras Libres.

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the world’s most famous drug lord, is losing his mind. He has trouble remembering recent events, he has bouts of depression and anxiety, and he can barely sleep. He might be losing his body as well. Life in prison has given him constant respiratory problems, and he may be facing a serious heart condition. He fears he will not make it to December.

Or so claims Emma Coronel, his common-law wife, and his team of lawyers. Mexican authorities disagree. According to Eduardo Guerrero, head of the federal penitentiary system, El Chapo has been battling a nasty, but far from life-threatening, cold. He is receiving treatment for a sore throat, along with some over-the-counter analgesics and a sleeping pill that doubles up as an anxiety reliever.

As far as can be ascertained from the outside, the official version is probably true. There is simply no evidence that the imprisoned drug trafficker is seriously ill. While he was on the run, there were claims that he had both diabetes and hypertension, but this turned out to be false. In one of Guzman’s hideouts, Mexican marines did indeed find various medications, but they were intended for the treatment of asthma and (wait for it) hemorrhoids.

So if he is not dying or going insane (by sociopathic killer standards, anyway), what’s behind the dire claims? It’s a ploy to gain some time.

Famously, El Chapo has escaped twice from Mexican high-security prisons: Once in 2001, in a cart of dirty laundry, and most recently in July 2015, using a mile-long tunnel that led directly to his cell. He was recaptured again in Sinaloa in 2016. For rather obvious reasons, these escapes have been deeply embarrassing for the Mexican government. To prevent further humiliation, authorities belatedly agreed to extradite Guzmán to the United States. That willingness was formalized in May, when Mexico’s foreign ministry announced that it had accepted a formal extradition request from the U.S. government.

The drug lord’s legal team has been battling that decision for the past six months, with little luck so far. On Oct. 21, a federal judge rejected two different attempts by Guzmán to obtain a stay on his extradition. His lawyers have announced that they will appeal that ruling and the case may end up in Mexico’s Supreme Court.

Does he stand a chance in higher courts? It’s hard to say, but one thing is certain: If he loses those appeals, there would no longer be any legal hurdles to prevent his departure to the United States. It could mean the end of his long criminal career and the beginning of a life spent in a maximum-security American facility, with little or no contact with other human beings.

On top of that, El Chapo’s legal troubles come at an awkward time for his criminal organization. The once all-mighty Sinaloa Cartel is looking vulnerable these days. In June, as many as 150 henchmen, affiliated with the rival Beltrán-Leyva organization, descended on Badiraguato, Guzmán’s hometown, and attacked his mother’s house. Then, in August, two of El Chapo’s sons were kidnapped in the resort town of Puerto Vallarta and mysteriously released a few days later.

That abduction was allegedly the work of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, an upstart organization that is vying to become Mexico’s most powerful crime syndicate. Once seen as junior partners to the Sinaloans, they are now challenging their former masters all over the map. In the Pacific Coast state of Colima, they are waging a savage war against Sinaloa for control of the port town of Manzanillo. They are also making inroads in Tijuana, in alliance with members of the once-dominant Arellano-Félix cartel, and they might be making a play for Ciudad Juárez, an all-important transshipment center for the drug trade.

The Sinaloa Cartel is probably also suffering from internal conflict. Since El Chapo’s recapture 10 months ago, one of his brothers, Aureliano Guzmán (aka El Guano), has emerged as a major criminal figure. But he is widely seen as brash and unpredictable. On Sept. 30, in Culiacán, the state capital of Sinaloa, his men attacked a military patrol, killing five soldiers and injuring many others. While the Army launched a major operation to track down the killers, Iván Archibaldo and Alfredo Guzmán, the eldest sons of El Chapo and probably his successors, took the unusual step for a criminal organization of putting out a press release, denying any connection to the attack and implicitly blaming their uncle. Open war could follow.

With his life on the line and his criminal empire under pressure, El Chapo needs to move fast. The only option, from his perspective, is another escape.

But taking flight under current conditions seems an unlikely proposition. In May, he was transferred from the Altiplano prison—the scene of his bold jailbreak in 2015— to a newer facility in Ciudad Juárez, right on the U.S. border. The prison where he is currently held is in a completely uninhabited area, built on sandy soil, making the construction of a tunnel far more difficult.

Moreover, he is still under very tight surveillance within the prison and in the surrounding perimeter (there is an Army unit deployed around the building). He has restricted visitation rights: he only gets to see his lawyers once every four or five days. The same goes for family visits.

Guzmán’s ability to communicate with the outside world is limited, he is stuck in the middle of nowhere, and eyes are constantly on him. Not the perfect environment for bolting from prison.

That’s where all the health talk comes in. Guzmán desperately needs to convince or legally force the authorities to transfer him to a more escape-friendly facility and allow him more contact with his confederates. Playing sick and making it seem that his demise is near is probably part of that plan.

The Mexican government is unlikely to fall for that ploy, but some judge (maybe after receiving a silver or lead offer) might. Indeed, Guzmán won an injunction in court in August, ordering his return to the Altiplano prison. That ruling is currently under appeal.

In the end, this comes down to a race against time. Either El Chapo is extradited relatively soon or he will end up finding the means to break away from jail once more. Death is still not in the cards for him, but neither is a long stay inside a Mexican prison.