Atiplano prison, Mexico – A long queue of journalists stretched out from the doors of the Altiplano maximum security prison in Mexico.
We were all there for the same reason; the world’s most wanted drug lord had escaped on Saturday in a jailbreak straight out of the movies. Everyone was eager to get a glimpse of exactly how he’d done it.
One by one we entered the tiny, bare jail cell in which a small hole had been cut through the concrete floor, leading to a 1.5km-long tunnel through which Joaquin Guzman, alias “El Chapo” had incredibly ridden a specially-adapted motorbike on rails under the prison walls and out to freedom.
The authorities had been after Joaquin Guzman for 14 years, since his first escape from prison (legend has it in a laundry cart). Since then he’d risen through the ranks of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, reputedly running operations from the rugged and remote Sinaloan mountains as his legend grew.
When the government finally caught him in February 2014 it seemed a vindication of their kingpin take-down strategy.
The myth had been reduced to a small, chubby, moustached man paraded triumphantly for the press before being locked up. But on Saturday the tables were spectacularly turned.
El Chapo grew back into the formidable, shadowy figure of popular legend. The authorities shrank back into their more familiar role of corrupt incompetence.
The surprising thing is that we’d now been invited by the Mexican government to take a look at how El Chapo had dropped through their fingers. As the multitude of media hacks passed through the prison’s metal detector, many of us wondered aloud why.
Maybe the answer found in Thursday’s newspapers in Mexico.
A survey in daily Reforma showed that 54 percent of the Mexicans they questioned don’t even believe that El Chapo escaped the prison through the tunnel.
The underlying assumption – echoed in the Twitter world and in a myriad of Facebook memes – is that such is the level of impunity in Mexico, that he could have simply walked out the door.
With such mistrust, the government tour provided evidence that El Chapo’s escape was at least partly due to a truly ingenious plan, rather than a wholesale failure by the authorities.
But even our brief glimpse of the ragged hole in El Chapo’s bathroom raised more questions.
Wouldn’t digging up through the concrete floor – reinforced with metal bars – have made an amount of noise?
How did the tunnellers know exactly where to come up? How could the guards have possibly remained ignorant of a large hole in such a small cell?
The logical conclusion had already been arrived at by the country’s Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong.
“The fugitive had to have counted on the complicity the staff or bosses of the Altiplano prison. If that’s confirmed it will be an act of corruption and a betrayal of the Mexican people,” he said, confirming the prison director had been sacked, among other officials.
As time goes by perhaps we’ll find out exactly how far the chain of corruption went. In the meantime, the mystery and grand scale of El Chapo’s escape continues to fascinate.
And as we drove home from the Altiplano prison, our team all had the same distinct sensation that somewhere, a powerful and dangerous criminal must be watching the media circus he has generated, and laughing at all of us.