Some people think he walked out of the front door of the prison, while others don’t think he ws even there at all.
MEXICO CITY — When Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, Joaquín Guzman, escaped from prison last month, he walked out of captivity and straight into the conspiracy-obsessed imaginations of his countrymen, who are willing, it seems, to believe almost anything except what their government tells them.
The official version of the escape is that Guzman, who is known as El Chapo, or Shorty, slipped through a hole in the floor of the shower of his cell and then out through a mile-long tunnel secretly dug under the walls of what was supposed to be the country’s most secure prison.
But for the government here, what may once have been a credibility gap is now a chasm of disbelief, and by the millions Mexicans are not buying it.
“The government wants to sell us a tale in which no one knew about the tunnel and he got away,” said Carlos Castaños, an opposition legislator from Sinaloa, Guzman’s home state. “It’s like they think that Mexicans are all kindergartners and they’re going to believe anything they tell them.”
Most Read Nation & World Stories
- Washington state extremist pays a price after unmasking by left
- Sports on TV & radio: Local listings for Seattle games and events
- Scorching hot in Phoenix: What it’s like to work in 115 degrees
- In the wake of India’s COVID crisis, a ‘Black Fungus’ epidemic follows
- Motorcycle stunt rider Alex Harvill dies while trying to break world record in Moses Lake
While officials acknowledge that corruption undoubtedly played a factor in Guzman’s escape, the admission hardly inspires public confidence, and there are seemingly as many alternate versions of Guzman’s epic escape as there are Mexicans.
A few samples:
• The tunnel is just a ruse to deflect public attention, and Guzman, a reputed billionaire with the resources to bribe whomever he liked, simply walked out the front door of the prison.
• He didn’t actually escape because he was never in prison in the first place.
• The man in prison was not Guzman but a look-alike, who either did or did not escape, either through the tunnel or through some other means.
• The government had a pact with Guzman to let him out of prison, but it reneged, so he took matters into his own hands.
• The government had a pact with Guzman to let him out of prison, and it stuck to the bargain by letting him escape.
• Guzman was allowed to escape because the government dispatched him to negotiate a deal with the heads of other drug-trafficking organizations.
•Guzman volunteered to go to prison to protect himself from assassination attempts by drug-trafficking rivals — and just as he walked in when he wanted to, he walked out when he was ready.
And that is just for starters.
It does not help the government’s credibility that the escape was Guzman’s second. In 2001 he lammed out of another high-security prison, by some accounts sneaking out in a laundry cart.
After Guzman’s capture was announced in early 2014, President Enrique Peña Nieto said it would be unforgivable if he escaped again. When Peña Nieto returned from a state visit to France after the escape, he vowed to recapture the drug lord but added that nothing was to be gained by getting angry.
“Everyone knows this is a piece of theater,” said Yolanda Ley, 48, who lives in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa. “You can see the tunnel is old. It’s not new. This is all a spoof to keep people entertained.”
“He walked out the front door, and this was something that was already perfectly planned and executed,” said Manuel Benítez, 67, a retired government administrator. “How is it possible that the noise of the drilling to make the tunnel didn’t warn anyone? Didn’t someone, anyone, hear that tremendous noise?”
Benítez said that the government made a deal with Guzman last year to capture him in order to calm public discontent over escalating drug war violence, with the assurance that he could walk out of prison within a short time.
“In this country, money makes anything possible,” Benítez said.
“El Chapo was never in jail,” said Vanessa Rivera, 20, a college student. “What a coincidence that it happened when EPN was flying to France,” she said, referring to the president by his initials.
She also found it suspicious that the authorities released a photograph of Guzman showing him with a shaved head, yet in a video that was made public later of Guzman in his cell at the time of the escape, he appears with a full head of hair.
“It was all a show,” she said, saying that Guzman likely walked out of prison long ago and that the government announced the supposed escape now to distract people from other issues, such as controversial changes in the oil industry and the education system.
It could be said that Mexicans come by their disbelief honestly.
Corruption saturates the government at virtually all levels: mayors and the local police, governors, legislators and the military. Presidents are widely believed to steer lucrative contracts to their cronies. Peña Nieto has been mired in a scandal over a luxurious house that his wife was buying on favorable terms from a government contractor.
Of course, that is not the first time the government has been caught with its hand in the tortilla dough, as the saying here goes.
One of the most notorious cases of government fabrication, which still resonates today, began in 2005, when the authorities arrested a gang of alleged kidnappers, including a Frenchwoman, Florence Cassez. A day later they staged the arrest again in front of television cameras, pretending to capture the gang and free three victims in a SWAT-style operation that was pure theater.
The case created diplomatic tension between Mexico and France, and Cassez was freed in 2013.
Last year the country was rocked by the disappearance of 43 students from a teachers college. Federal officials ultimately declared that they had been killed by members of a drug gang in league with local politicians and the police, and that their bodies had been burned.
The government’s bumbling handling of the case provoked deep skepticism about the official account of the tragedy. Bolstering the disbelief, the National Human Rights Commission in July issued a scathing report on the investigation, calling it deeply flawed and pointing out that important leads had not been followed.
Recent Mexican history is full of similar high-profile cases that were either never solved or were officially put to bed in a way that led to suspicions that powerful interests were being protected.
“For years it has been clear that justice does not exist, and the official version is a fantasy,” said Rafael Pineda, a political cartoonist who goes by the name Rapé. “There’s nothing left for people to do but to make up alternative realities, alternative hypotheses.”
He added, “Humor is all we’ve got left; it’s like an escape valve to dilute our anger.”
That and conspiracy theories. Perhaps no single aspect of the escape has so fascinated the public or inspired such disbelief as the tunnel, a sophisticated mile-long passage that reached a depth of 62 feet and led from Guzman’s cell to a small house outside the prison.
Even though journalists have seen the tunnel and photographs and videos have been made public, some people continue to insist that there is no tunnel (cue theories that Guzman walked out the front door or was never imprisoned to begin with).
Other variations on the tunnel theme:
• It was built a long time ago and, therefore, was not used in his escape.
• It was secretly built in the 1990s by a former president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, as an escape route (never used) for his brother, Raúl, who was in prison on charges of financial fraud and murder.
• It was used by inmates to come and go at will from the prison, to attend parties and to visit prostitutes beyond the walls.
• It was one of several built by guards who wanted an escape route in case of a devastating earthquake.
Guzman’s escape has raised eyebrows in virtually every corner of society. Even those in positions of authority doubt the authorities.
“No one believes it,” said a veteran federal police officer, referring to the government’s account of Guzman’s escape. “All they do is lie.”
Asking not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, he added, “Maybe he wasn’t even in there at all. There are lots of questions. Why weren’t the president and the interior minister in Mexico? Mom and Dad leave home, and they don’t tell the kids there’s something very important they need to keep an eye on?”
Castaños, the opposition legislator from Sinaloa, called the official version of the escape “a burlesque,” saying that one simple fact, the volume of dirt that would have had to be removed to dig the tunnel, suggested the story was not plausible.
But while he shared the general skepticism, Castaños showed himself to be less imaginative than many of his fellow countrymen in one respect: “I don’t know how he got out,” he admitted.