The ‘El Chapo’ escape: When real life mimics fiction

Mexico drug lord escapes

Mexican federal police near the Altiplano maximum security prison Sunday in Almoloya, Mexico. Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped from there -- it’s the second time he’s escaped imprisonment.

(Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

It’s a crazy story: A drug lord escaped from a maximum-security prison in Mexico via a tunnel, outfitted with a rail-mounted motorbike, that led from his shower to a house in a cornfield a mile away.

That was Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who disappeared Saturday and is being sought by Mexican authorities. It’s the second time Guzman, considered Mexico’s most powerful drug lord, has escaped from prison.

Guzman’s first escape was fictionalized by novelist Don Winslow in his new book, “The Cartel.” Winslow, a former private investigator and award-winning thriller writer, had long been writing about narco traffickers and the border drug war; a character like Guzman appeared in his acclaimed 2005 thriller, “The Power of the Dog.”

At CNN, Winslow writes about the prison escapes. “The first time Chapo went into prison in 1993, he served almost eight years of a 20-year sentence before ‘escaping’ -- supposedly in a laundry cart, more probably by car or helicopter -- after turning Puente Grande maximum-security prison into the Four Seasons, replete with movie nights, imported hookers, gourmet meals, fine wine and Christmas parties,” he writes.


Winslow is skeptical that Guzman -- whom he calls “a brilliant, ruthless billionaire businessman whose business happens to be drugs” -- escaped without the cooperation of authorities, from guards to high officials.

“If this departure was like the last one, Chapo didn’t ‘escape.’ He checked out of the hotel and paid the bill with bribery, intimidation and blackmail,” Winslow writes. He speculates, “If he went out that tunnel, it was with an armed escort, most likely a mix of prison guards and his own people, if the past is prologue. My bet is that he went out the front gate and the tunnel was a tissue-thin face-saving device for Mexican officials, the motorcycle a dramatic improvement over the laundry cart. Some informed speculation has him leaving in a helicopter, as I imagined in ‘The Cartel.’”

In “The Cartel,” Winslow tells a version of the power, corruption and extreme violence of the narco-trafficking world.

But talking to the Los Angeles Times about his new novel, Winslow explained, “For me it’s not good enough to say, that’s a bad guy. You have to at least see the world through his point of view. You might not like what you’re looking at and the way that they think, but you have to make that effort.”


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