Latin America

‘El Chapo’ leaves behind a sparrow

The dead bird was left in the drug kingpin’s cell after his escape. Was it a warning?

EL PAÍS reporters examine ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán's prison cell.Video: EL PAÍS

The spectacular escape of Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán from a maximum security prison in Mexico is shrouded in mystery.

Inside his jail cell at El Altiplano penitentiary, a dead sparrow was found in a waste basket. Authorities believe that the bird may have been used to test the ventilation of the 1,500-meter tunnel dug under the complex, from which Guzmán made his daring escape on Saturday.

Some believe the cartel leader purposely left the bird behind as a warning to those who try to recapture him

Others believe that the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel leader was given the sparrow by one of the tunnel diggers and purposely left it behind as a warning to anyone who tries to recapture him.

El Chapo could be hiding out somewhere in the mountains of his native Sinaloa state or could have left the country by now. As the head of the most powerful drug cartel in the world, his connections stretch across the globe.

For 16 months, the Mexican government had El Chapo in custody, after the navy captured him last year at an apartment in the resort city of Mazatlán.

The escape – presumably carried out with the help of prison staff and other officials – has been a major embarrassment for President Enrique Peña’s administration.

The mountain range in Sinaloa, where El Chapo's cartel operates.
The mountain range in Sinaloa, where El Chapo's cartel operates.SAÚL RUIZ

“God only knows where El Chapo has headed,” says Mario Valenzuela, the mayor of Guzmán’s birth town Badiraguato, in Sinaloa.

The 5,800 square meters of rugged mountain range would make it easy for Mexico’s most-wanted criminal to disappear, right in the state’s heartland.

In cell number 20, in the second section of El Altiplano’s maximum security wing, El Chapo had planned his escape.

To reach the tiny room, visitors have to go through 26 checkpoints along the grim and gray passageways. The only colorful item that stands out is a poster on a wall that reads: “Suicide prevention campaign. Have you ever considered that life can hurt you?”

Some of Mexico’s most high-profile criminals are also in custody in El Altiplano’s maximum security section, including former Iguala Mayor José Luis Abarca, who is awaiting trial for allegedly conspiring in the murders of 43 teaching students last September.

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Also behind bars is Servando La Tuta Gómez Martínez, the reputed leader of the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) drug-trafficking organization in Michoacán, who was arrested earlier this year.

Héctor Beltrán Leyva, of the notorious drug-trafficking family of the same name, is also being held in El Altiplano, as is Miguel Ángel Féliz Gallardo, better known as “The Godfather,” and who purportedly showed El Chapo the trade in the 1980s.

This week, EL PAÍS made a visit to the prison and the cell, thanks to authorization from the Mexican government.

At the end of a 25-meter hallway, the last jail cell on the left was where El Chapo was held.

It seems impossible that anyone could escape from this eight-square-meter barren space, in the midst of such tight security. The seats and beds are made of cement and the only opening to the outside world is a small window with heavy bars.

But on the shower floor, a 10 by 50 centimeter rectangular opening can been seen leading to a dark and mysterious hole. A shower grate weighing about 20 kilos, which El Chapo lifted up to make his escape, was leaning on the wall.

God only knows where El Chapo has headed,” says the mayor of Guzmán’s birthplace

A surveillance video released this week showed Guzmán sitting on his bed, changing his shoes, and walking inside the shower. However, the camera’s set up didn’t allow it to record the moments when El Chapo went through the hole, because the image was blocked by the shower wall.

At least 40 prison officials are being investigated as suspects in aiding El Chapo’s escape. The warden and three other top prison officials were fired on Monday.

While a massive manhunt is underway, it doesn’t appear that the government, at the moment, plans on sending in police and troops to scour the small towns and villages that dot the vast Sinaloa mountain range, where the cartel’s operations are based.

With its 32,000 residents, Badiraguato oversees a budget of $8.5 million – 120 times less than El Chapo’s reputed personal fortune reported by Forbes. Even though the city is poor, it has produced a string of wealthy criminals.

Among them are “The Godfather” Gallardo; Rafael Caro, known as “the trafficker’s trafficker;” El Chapo; and Juan José El Azul Esparragoza.

If the government really wants to recapture El Chapo it is going to need to create an intelligence network, like it did the last time he was arrested”

Andrés Villarreal, managing editor of the Sinaloa daily Riodoce, doesn’t believe that the Mexican government will carry out raids among the villages and cities across the state.

“Drug kingpins are not arrested through massive raids. They are usually captured in intelligence operations,” Villarreal said. “If the government really wants to recapture El Chapo it is going to need to create an intelligence network, like it did the last time he was arrested.”

Villarreal believes that El Chapo’s security detail will be tighter than ever, and will include cooperation from corrupt police officials.

One resident of Badiraguato believes that El Chapo will return to Sinaloa to meet with the other cartel members “only when things quieten down.”

“If the winds are blowing from the north, El Chapo will come south,” the resident said.

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