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Complex Infrastructure Compounded Hunt For Elusive Drug Lord


We have more details now of how the world's most notorious drug lord was captured and also how he eluded authorities for so long. His name is Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. He escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001 and stayed on the run until early this year. During all that time in hiding he was running the Sinaloa cartel, a massive operation smuggling drugs into the United States.

Reporter Patrick Radden Keefe has been examining El Chapo's life on the run. In The New Yorker magazine he reports on El Chapo's hideouts in Culiacan, the state capital of Sinaloa. El Chapo stayed hidden in that city by moving among his seven homes.

PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE: Each of these homes had a special escape hatch, basically, which was built underneath a bathtub. And so what would happen is he would go - if he needed to, he would go into the bathroom, activate a hydraulic lift. And the way he would do that is by taking a plug and putting it into a particular electrical outlet at the same time as he was flicking a switch, a hidden switch on the side of the vanity mirror.

And then the tub would rise up and reveal a tunnel down into the sewers underneath the city. And through these sewer tunnels he actually had seven different homes which were all connected to one another with these secret escape hatches.

INSKEEP: Do you mean to say that even though they were three miles apart, that you could go from any one of those homes to any of the other seven without ever coming up above the ground?

KEEFE: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Because now I'm getting this image of like a giant prairie dog village. He could pop here, he could pop up there, you could never find him.

KEEFE: Yeah. And listen, this was a guy who escaped from prison in early 2001 and was on the run for 13 years. So I think it was - in order to stay at large for that long, he needed to devise these types of really sophisticated mechanisms. The other thing to remember about him, I mean I had been thinking while I was writing this story about Whitey Bulger and the idea that Whitey Bulger was at large for a similar period of time.

INSKEEP: The Boston Monster, right.

KEEFE: Right, exactly. But the difference is that with Whitey Bulger, when they finally found him in Santa Monica, it turned out that he was basically in retirement. He was living a quiet life in a little apartment there. With Chapo Guzman, he was on the run during all these years, all kinds of people were looking for him. He was one of the most wanted men in the world.

But he wasn't in retirement. He was actually running the most lucrative and expansive narcotics enterprise in the world.

INSKEEP: Well, that leads to my next question. What kinds of communications did he have knowing that the United States, with all the power of the National Security Agency and other agencies, was trying to listen to him?

KEEFE: So it's funny. One thing I found out as I was reporting this story is that his favorite communications device was the Blackberry. We think of it as maybe a slightly outmoded handheld device, but for Chapo Guzman it was really his lifeline.

INSKEEP: Oh, because he it was considered a secure device.

KEEFE: Exactly. Because they're made in Canada. He didn't trust satellite phones because most of the satellite phone companies are based in the U.S. Interestingly, he's almost illiterate, from what I understand. He dropped out of school in the third grade, but he'd learned enough in terms of reading and writing to be able to send instant messages.

So most of what he did was instant message by Blackberry.

INSKEEP: In the end, though, did the U.S. government find a way to crack the Blackberry?

KEEFE: They did. I mean it's been an interesting cat and mouse game over the years because they were able to home in on the Blackberry that he was using. This is in about 2012 and they got very close to capturing him when they traced the Blackberry to Los Cabos, the resort town in the west coast of Mexico. And they started chasing after him and at some point during this chase through the city, it dawned on him that they were actually tracking his Blackberry.

And he did something very clever then. What he did was he secretly handed the Blackberry off to one of his subordinates who then took it and went running through the city. It's funny. The Mexican law enforcement guys who went after him referred to this guy as Conejo, which means the rabbit. The rabbit sort of took off with the Blackberry.

And they all went chasing after the rabbit and Chapo Guzman went in the other direction and had a private plane pick him up and flew back to the mountains.

INSKEEP: And managed to stay free then for a couple more years, but the authorities closed in on him again. How?

KEEFE: So at first what happened after that near miss in Los Cabos is they lost his signal. They couldn't find any kind of communication and they sort of figured, well, was he doing what bin Laden had done where you only use curriers. But it's hard to do that and run a drug business. You really need to be on the phone or sending messages.

And what they figured out he was doing is, he had a system where he would send messages by Blackberry, but they would go through a couple of intermediaries who were then copying them onto iPads and using wi-fi hotspots so they wouldn't use the cellular networks. It was very, very involved and would seem to be very hard to penetrate.

But what the DEA and Mexican authorities started doing was trying to figure out who that ring of facilitators was around him, and a number of them, when they were interrogated, turned over information about where Chapo Guzman was.

INSKEEP: Now, we know that in the end the Mexican marines stormed the place where he was. They found him. They found his wife. He surrendered. But this leads to the question - the U.S. authorities who wanted Guzman had to cooperate with the Mexican authorities. How did they manage to do that without some corrupt official giving away the game?

KEEFE: Well, it's been a very tricky process for them in that respect because over the years there have been a number on instances where they came very close to getting Chapo and he always seemed to just escape through the back door. And a lot of U.S. officials began to conclude that he was being tipped off, basically, by Mexican authorities.

So what they did was they worked very closely with a unit of the Mexican marines, which is highly secretive and has a lot of safeguards where, for instance, the marines who actually conducted the mission, their cell phones were confiscated before the mission. So even if one of them was corrupt, he couldn't make a call. And none of them knew before they got on the helicopter to go and conduct the mission who they were going after or even where they were going.

INSKEEP: It's evident from your story that you talked with a number of U.S. officials and also some Mexican officials who work against the narcotics trade. They told you the story of this great triumph. But now they have to be dealing with the reality that usually after a big arrest like this, the trade is very little disrupted at all.

KEEFE: Yeah, that's one of the ironies here. I think this is a great triumph in the sense that it's a story about accountability and the idea that a guy who has murdered as many people as Chapo Guzman has cannot just remain at large. But in terms of the broader scope of the drug war, I don't think it'll make a lick of difference. The drug trade will continue pretty undiminished.

INSKEEP: How did the law enforcement officials that you talked with deal with that reality on a human level, that even when they have a successful day, it doesn't make that much difference?

KEEFE: I think that they're pretty philosophical about it. This guy, Chapo Guzman, while not necessarily a household name in the United States, was a little bit of a white whale for law enforcement officials in the U.S. and Mexico. This is a guy they have wanted for years and years and years. So right now I think they're all pretty overcome with the feeling of success at having taken him down and perhaps not too inclined to question the larger logic of the drug war.

INSKEEP: Patrick Radden Keefe writes for The New Yorker magazine and is the author of "The Hunt For El Chapo" in the latest issue. Thanks very much.

KEEFE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.