El Chapo: the Mexican drug lord who made Houdini's escape tactics seem amateur

Joaquin Guzman made headlines for his Houdini-esque stunts, his wealthy empire and his women

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The Independent US

It didn’t take long for the man whose cartel is responsible for a quarter of the illegal drug trade in the US to disappear. 

On 15 July, just 50 minutes after a security guard had given the drug lord his medicine, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman disappeared from the prison camera. He had climbed into a hole in the floor beneath his shower. 

What officials discovered under the low dividing wall in his cell at the Altiplano prison was a highly sophisticated, well-lit and ventilated tunnel that stretched over one mile to a half-built outhouse.

The short, stocky 57-year-old, who has become as famous for his Houdini-esque feats as for his wealthy empire, has escaped from prison before.

In 2001, after eight years behind bars in one of the highest security prisons in Mexico, El Chapo was smuggled out of Puente Grande in a laundry cart. 

In what could have been the second act of Houdini theatre, a prison guard reportedly dragged back a makeshift curtain from his cell and cried out: “He’s escaped!"

But for a man who was desperate to get out of his cell, it can’t be said he had a bad time in prison. He organised regular visits from sex workers, had a cell phone to conduct business and attended favoured inmate parties with drink and lobster bisque. According to the The New Yorker, Guzman consolidated his wealth and his empire from behind bars. He left when it suited him.

He then disappeared for 13 years.

Mr Guzman was like Houdini in more ways than one. His life was a rag to riches tale. Born into a poor family in the Mexican mountain village of La Tuna, Sinaloa, he had nine siblings. His father was a cattle rancher and suspected opium poppy farmer, who often beat his children.

Mr Guzman broke away in his 20s to join organized crime, and despite his illiteracy, worked his way up from so-called apprentice and air traffic controller to the godfather of the underworld. 

Once at the top, he managed to keep his high status through trading information with the Drug Enforcement Administration. His Sinaloa cartel, meanwhile, continued to traffic cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine all over the globe.

He was secretive - he used a BlackBerry, as he felt more comfortable owning a phone made by a Canadian company - but he liked to have a good time. After marrying teenager beauty queen Emma Coronel, he reportedly invited half the criminal underworld to the party. When American authorities arrived to arrest him, he had already received a warning and had fled.

Mr Guzman built a network of courier services, contacts and escape routes to dodge authorities. For a man who had made millions, he was reportedly living like a pauper in the mountains. 

His wife gave birth to twins and insisted he spent time with them. But he still longed to party, and to dance. He continued to visit sex workers and “ate Viagra like candy”, spending almost as much time managing women than managing his empire.

It took just three minutes for marines to storm his house and capture him in 2014.

Now as we await further details on his capture this week, the public remain glued to his story and what his next Houdini moment will be.