El Chapo’s Mile-Long Ventilated Tunnel With Lighting Was Probably Really Expensive

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Photo: YURI CORTEZ

Note to authorities imprisoning infamous drug lords: If you let them go to the bathroom, they may abscond in a nicely decorated and very expensive tunnel instead.

At least that’s what we’ll learn once the unavoidable biopic of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman comes out, in which the Sinaloa cartel boss will probably be overshadowed by the underground lairs that have become his architectural signature. 

El Chapo’s most recent tunnel — the one that helped him make his second prison escape this weekend — probably avoided notice because those nearby assumed it was a movie set for Fast and Furious sequel eight. The tunnel, which began in a shower, extended for nearly a mile and was tall enough for the five-foot-five criminal to comfortably walk through. It had lights and ventilation made from PVC pipes and wood reinforcements and “a motorcycle that was specially modified to run on rails,” which may have helped speed up the escape, according to The New Yorker, or assist workers building the tunnel. The tunnel ended in a house under construction in the middle of nowhere, which did not exist before El Chapo’s arrest. If The Wall Street Journal’s “Mansion” section had known that such a marvel existed when it published a piece about luxury tunnels in January, it probably would have received top billing. 

And, as the Los Angeles Times notes, it was probably excessively costly, too, and construction probably began as soon as El Chapo had been imprisoned last year. “The tunnel had to cost maybe $5 million,” a former DEA official told the Times. “But $5 million to El Chapo would be like $5 to you or I.”

The tunnel that helped El Chapo — once called “the king of tunnels and drains” — evade authorities last year before his arrest was equally complex. Once again, the escape route was hidden in the bathroom, this time under a bathtub. As The New Yorker wrote in 2014,

As the battering ram clanged against the door, they moved quickly into the ground-floor bathroom. Chapo activated the escape hatch by pushing a plug into an electrical outlet by the sink while flicking a hidden switch on the side of the vanity mirror. Suddenly, the caulk around the rim of the bathtub broke and the tub rose from its tiled frame. The caulk had camouflaged the escape hatch; even the bodyguard might have been unaware of its existence before Guzmán turned on the hydraulic lift.

The entrance connected to bathtub escape hatches in six other house through the sewer.

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A Homeland Security Investigations member of the special response team looks south in a border tunnel equipped with lighting, ventilation and an electric rail system discovered between Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego. The secret passage on the U.S.-Mexico border was linked by authorities to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel and its leader, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who was arrested on Feb. 22, 2014 in Maztalan, Mexico.Photo: Gregory Bull/AP/Corbis

El Chapo’s cartel has been credited with building nearly 100 other tunnels on the U.S.-Mexico border, including one he called “a fucking cool tunnel.” One 1,500-foot-long tunnel found in 1993 that went from Tijuana to San Diego was air-conditioned and well-lit, and also tall enough to walk in. It was the largest drug tunnel ever discovered at that time, although several similar ones have been found over the years.

Former drug smuggler Brian O’Dea told CNN that the fact that a mile-long tunnel was built without anyone noticing looks suspicious, given El Chapo’s reputation. “Here’s a guy who time and again has proved he can build a hole in the ground. If they’re not looking at every single piece piece of soil around where they have that guy locked up, then they don’t have the willingness.”