A Visit To El Chapo's Prison Cell (Now That He's Gone)

A Visit To El Chapo's Prison Cell (Now That He's Gone)

12:46pm Jul 18, 2015
NPR's Mexico City correspondent Carrie Kahn sketched a rough map showing how El Chapo escaped, based on information from Mexico's National Security Commissioner, Monte Alejandro Rubido, in a press conference on July 12.
NPR's Mexico City correspondent Carrie Kahn sketched a rough map showing how El Chapo escaped, based on information from Mexico's National Security Commissioner, Monte Alejandro Rubido, in a press conference on July 12.
Carrie Kahn / NPR
The opening of the tunnel was dug into the floor of El Chapo's cell in an area that was a blind spot for the video camera monitoring his cell.

The opening of the tunnel was dug into the floor of El Chapo's cell in an area that was a blind spot for the video camera monitoring his cell.

Eduardo Verdugo/AP
This screen grab of video from a security camera, dated July 11 and released by Mexico's National Security Commission, shows the man Mexican authorities say is Guzman inside his cell at the Altiplano maximum security prison, looking at the shower floor shortly before escaping through a tunnel below.

This screen grab of video from a security camera, dated July 11 and released by Mexico's National Security Commission, shows the man Mexican authorities say is Guzman inside his cell at the Altiplano maximum security prison, looking at the shower floor shortly before escaping through a tunnel below.

AP

Editor's Note: Since Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's dramatic prison break on Saturday night, Mexico has distributed 100,000 fliers and offered a $4 million reward for the nation's top fugitive. Officials also took reporters to visit the cell at the Altiplano prison from which Guzman escaped. NPR's Carrie Kahn was among them.

We were taken through the front gate. It is a huge compound with hundreds of employees. It took us quite a long time to get to Guzman's cell. We had to pass through more than 20 locked doors, and at each door there are several guards. There are surveillance cameras. We had to have our IDs right up in our faces and at each stop, you had to turn and face up to a camera or had to pass slowly in front of a guard.

We went down several passageways, up and down staircases and finally down one long hallway in what's called the "special prison section," where we reached cell No. 20 — Guzman's cell.

It's a 60-square-foot cell. You have to go through two more doors and gates to get to it. There's one video camera that monitors the cell in the corner in the back, and then at the other end of the cell, there is a short concrete wall out of view of the camera. It came up to my chest.

The wall is to provide privacy for the prisoner. But as we all know, it actually provided an advantage, a blind spot, where Guzman was able to go through the floor and out to freedom.

NPR's Mexico City correspondent Carrie Kahn sketched a rough map showing how El Chapo escaped, based on information from Mexico's National Security Commissioner, Monte Alejandro Rubido, in a press conference on July 12.

NPR's Mexico City correspondent Carrie Kahn sketched a rough map showing how El Chapo escaped, based on information from Mexico's National Security Commissioner, Monte Alejandro Rubido, in a press conference on July 12.

Carrie Kahn/NPR

There's a gaping hole, about 20 inches by 20 inches, cut right out of the shower floor.

It's just incredible — we walked through all this security, past all these guards. And then you're looking down this huge hole that heads straight down into the ground.

I was shaking my head the whole time in disbelief. The hole in the shower floor, the concrete slab that was cut out, was really not that thick at all. It was about 2 or 3 inches. There was no rebar. You'd think it would be much thicker.

Authorities say the engineers who built the tunnel must have had the prison blueprints and GPS devices to reach that exact point. But what about all that noise from cutting through the rock and the soil right there to the shower?

There are so many people working in that prison, and no one heard anything?

The number of people who were probably bribed or in cahoots or just intimidated is just staggering.

Meanwhile, the fallout for Mexico's government is great. The U.S. cooperated to capture Guzman, and that cooperation is hugely strained at this time.

Mexicans vacillate between disbelief and making jokes about the escape to outright anger over the spectacle, the embarrassment, and showing the world the great weaknesses in their institutions. It's really painful to watch.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Last weekend, the world's most powerful drug lord escaped from Mexico's most secure lockup via a tunnel. Joaquin El Chapo Guzman - El Chapo means Shorty - went to the shower area of his cell, he crouched down out of sight of a surveillance camera, and he disappeared. Last night, Mexican officials took journalists to El Chapo's cell, and NPR's Carrie Kahn was among them. And she joins us from Mexico City.

Good morning, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So this is now the second time El Chapo has escaped from a Mexican prison. I mean, it's got to be a big embarrassment for the Mexican government. I mean, why are they taking a bunch of journalists to the scene of the escape?

KAHN: Part of it is that they want to be as transparent as they can and show journalists exactly what happened because, as always in Mexico when something - the government gives a point of view of something, there's a great skepticism in the country. So they do want to show as much as they can. And so they took about 50 of us, and we were taken through the front gate of this maximum security prison.

It is a huge compound. There's hundreds of employees there. And to actually get to Guzman's cell, it took us quite a long time. We had to pass through more than 20 locked doors. And at each door, there's several guards, there's surveillance cameras. We had to have our IDs right up at our faces. And they'd each stop you there at the turn and show it face up to a camera or you had to pass slowly in front of a guard, went down several passageways up and down staircases and finally down one long hallway in what's called the special prison section, where we reached cell number 20, and that was Guzman's.

It was a 60-square-foot cell. You have to go through two more doors and gates. You could see there's one video camera that monitors the cell in the corner in the back. And then at the other end of the cell, there is a short concrete wall - came up to about my chest - and that's out of the view of the camera. And that's to provide privacy for the prisoner, but as we all know it, actually provided this advantage, a blind spot where Guzman went through the floor there. And there's this gaping hole. It's about 20-by-20 inches cut right out of the shower floor. It's just incredible. You know, we walked through all the security, passed all these guards, and you're standing right in front, looking down this huge hole that heads straight down into the ground.

GREENE: That's amazing. I mean, it sounds like there are so many things to stop journalists who are welcome in this prison to actually move around. How in the world did the world's most powerful drug lord get out of there and do this?

KAHN: You just stand there in that cell - I was just shaking my head the whole time in disbelief. And one thing that was unbelievable was that hole in the shower floor - the concrete slab that was cut out, was just - it really wasn't that thick at all. It was about two or three inches. It had no rebar in it. That was just incredible. You would think it would be much thicker. And authorities say the engineers who built the tunnel must have had the prison blueprints and GPS devices to reach that exact point. And then what about all the noise - cutting through the rock and the soil right there to the shower? There are so many people working in that prison, and no one heard anything? That's just beyond credible. The amount of people that were bribed or in cahoots or just intimidated is just staggering.

GREENE: So what happens now? I mean, this is just a huge black eye for the Mexican government.

KAHN: The fallout for the government is just great. Just look internationally. You know, the U.S. cooperated with Mexico to capture Guzman, and that cooperation is beyond strained at this time. The U.S. says it's willing to help recapture Guzman, but we've yet to see if Mexico's really taking up - them up on that offer. And here at home, the fallout politically is tremendous for President Pena Nieto. He gained so much by capturing Guzman, and he's lost even more with this huge escape. And it's just been really hard to watch Mexicans. They vacillate between disbelief to making jokes about the escape to just outright anger over this spectacle, the embarrassment and showing the world the great weaknesses in their institution. It's really painful to watch.

GREENE: All right, that's NPR's Carrie Kahn speaking to us from Mexico City. She just got a tour of the cell where the world's most powerful drug lord, Joaquin El Chapo Guzman, recently escaped. Carrie, thanks a lot.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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