Inside 'El Chapo' Guzman's cell: a fortress, but not secure enough

Electronic metal-bar doors clank more than 20 times behind visitors making their way down long halls and tunnels to the last cell on the “special treatment” prison block, the cramped residence -- until his audacious escape last weekend -- of drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Inside the cell at the end of the hallway reserved for the most dangerous prisoners, a small bed with a foam rubber mattress lies against one wall. Above that is the surveillance camera, pointed toward the corner where Guzman’s floor toilet and Mexico’s most famous shower are located.

Concealed by a 4-foot wall, the floor of the crude shower reveals a jagged-edged square hole carved out by Guzman and associates and down which he shimmied to freedom Saturday night.

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Mexican authorities on Wednesday escorted a group of international journalists through the massive, maximum-security Altiplano “Prison No. 1” and into Guzman’s cell for a glimpse at how he lived and how he escaped.

The hole in the shower revealed that the flooring there was unreinforced and only a couple of inches thick, in violation of prison policy calling for much thicker floors and walls. The slab that had been removed rested to one side of the shower.

The opening led to a 30-foot drop and into a mile-long tunnel through which authorities say Guzman fled. The passageway opened into a half-built cinder-block house where the head of the Sinaloa cartel’s lieutenants awaited him, reportedly with food, a change of clothes and a getaway car.

An impressive engineering feat, the tunnel bore through rock and dirt under fields of mud and corn. It was equipped with lighting, ventilation and a track along which carts removed excavated dirt. A modified motorcycle may have been used by Guzman to zip along the track during his escape. The tunnel also had oxygen tanks and, according to Mexican news reports, Guzman used a sparrow to test the safety of the air. He left the bird behind -- still alive -- in his cell waste basket.

Passing through the tunnel now, it is musty and dank. And after a huge rainstorm Wednesday it had flooded. Presumably, when in full use, the tunnel was equipped with pumps to keep out rainwater. The ceiling is uneven but was high enough for Guzman -- whose nickname "El Chapo" translates as "Shorty" and who stands about 5-foot-6 -- to walk upright.

When inside his cell No. 20, which measures roughly 6 feet by 10 feet, Guzman was encased in a fortress of security. Visiting journalists had to show identification to guards, male and female, and before cameras more than a dozen times as they walked about a third of a mile deep into the prison before reaching the drug lord’s former housing.

At numerous points along the way, there were cage-like holding pens, where exit doors would not open until the entrance doors clinked shut.

The 10 cells on Guzman’s passageway hold so-called high-value prisoners. Each one has a double set of doors: a heavy, solid-metal one and another of bars. Inmates here eat their meals alone in the cells.

Despite such levels of security, two of these prisoners wandered into the hall while the journalists visited to collect their dinner from a food cart. “Provecho, senores!” one called out: basically, “bon appétit, men!”

The prison surveillance video of Guzman’s last minutes in his Altiplano cell shows him pacing back and forth and entering the shower, fully clothed in beige prison garb, a couple of times, reemerging to change his shoes and then finally, entering, kneeling and never reappearing.

Authorities have said the shower was a blind spot on their surveillance because of the need to give inmates privacy.

The video also shows a Guzman with a full head of preternaturally jet-black hair, in contrast to the official photo authorities had released of him, showing him with a shaved head, which is standard prison grooming.

The Times asked Jaime Fernandez, acting prison warden who oversaw the journalists’ visit, about the discrepancy. He said that Guzman was between monthly haircuts. Still, every other inmate that could be observed during the visit had a shaved head or closely cropped hair.

Fernandez said he had only been on the job four days and declined to discuss what if any new security measures were being taken at the prison. His predecessor, Valentin Cardenas, was fired after Guzman’s escape, along with several other prison officials.

Any personal belongings left behind had been stripped by officials from the attorney general’s office. That included a 7-inch plasma TV permitted under jailhouse rules.

From what journalists could observe, Guzman’s surroundings were a lot more Spartan than his last digs, when he was incarcerated from 1993 until his escape in 2001 from the Puente Grande high-security prison. He had remained a fugitive until his capture last year.

At Puente Grande, he pretty much had the run of the place, enjoying booze and women. It is where he met Zulema Hernandez, a convicted armed robber in her 20s who became his mistress -- until, after her release, she was found with a bullet in her head in the trunk of a car.

The Altiplano facility, about 50 miles west of the capital of Mexico City, was built about 24 years ago and houses a who’s who of Mexico’s notorious drug lords and nefarious criminals. It was considered the most impenetrable in Mexico. Until now.

Guzman was there just 17 months.

Follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter for news out of Mexico

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