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World

Mexicans Question Whether 'El Chapo' Really Escaped Through Prison Tunnel

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's turn to Mexico where a month ago, officials announced their most notorious convict, drug lord Joaquin El Chapo Guzman, had escaped from a maximum-security prison for a second time. In 2001, Guzman, who heads the Sinaloa cartel, broke out of a maximum-security prison reportedly by hiding in a laundry basket. This time, the government says El Chapo fled through a massive tunnel. Well, Mexican citizens are very skeptical. William Neuman is a Latin American correspondent for The New York Times. Here's how he says the Mexican authorities explained El Chapo's second escape.

WILLIAM NEUMAN: The story really hasn't changed from the very first day. Essentially, the official version is that El Chapo escaped through a tunnel that was dug under the walls of the prison. It opened in a small hole in the floor of the shower of his cell. He went down the hole, down a ladder, through the tunnel and disappeared.

GREENE: Mexican citizens, most of them are just not buying this?

NEUMAN: No, there's deep, deep skepticism in Mexico about this story and just about anything else the government says. But Mexicans have come up with a whole lot of alternative theories for what actually did happen to fill the credibility gap that the government has.

GREENE: What are a couple of the theories? We've got to hear them.

NEUMAN: A lot of them center on the tunnel. For instance, a lot of people believe that the tunnel either doesn't exist or is just a ruse or a distraction. I've seen some theories that there wasn't a full tunnel, that there was a few yards of tunnel at one end and at the other end to fool the journalists. A lot of people believe that he walked out the front door and that the tunnel was built to hide the fact that the corruption is so deep that he was able to pay people off and walk out the front door.

GREENE: That would not be the image that the government would want out there.

NEUMAN: No, no. Although, you know, the government had admitted that there was corruption in the digging of the tunnel. Although, they've only detained a few prison workers and nobody at any high level. For instance, there's an army base just outside the prison whose only job is to maintain the perimeter of the prison. And the base is a short distance from the small house where the tunnel was dug from. So nobody from that base, as far as we know, has been arrested; although it's hard to believe that all of that activity could've happened without somebody there knowing about it.

But some of the other theories - there's theories that the tunnel was dug by a former president when the former president's brother was in prison. There's theories that the tunnel's been there for years and that the prisoners use it regularly to go out to parties. There's theories that El Chapo was never in jail, the whole thing was made up or that the person who was in jail was a sort of a body double for El Chapo, which raises the question, did the body double actually escape? Or was the escape of the body double faked?

GREENE: People are getting deep, deep into these theories, it sounds like.

NEUMAN: Very deep, yeah.

GREENE: Well, why is there this credibility vacuum? Why do people just not trust the government in general, here or otherwise?

NEUMAN: This is something that goes back years, and it's a gradual process. And on the one hand, it's sort of funny because of all the black humor around it and all the sort of oddball theories about his escape. But it also says a lot about a country where people have simply stopped trusting the government on all sorts of levels. And one of the reasons is corruption. Corruption in Mexico is endemic. It happens at all levels. People simply assume that everybody's been bought off. And one of the people I talked to for this story said, money will buy anything in Mexico. And while that may be true in just about any country, Mexicans have become so used to it that it simply has become part of the fabric of social life and how they view their government.

GREENE: Well, and lastly, William Neuman, where do things stand right now in the hunt for El Chapo?

NEUMAN: Well, the U.S. just offered a $5 million reward and set up a tips line for information that would lead to his arrest. But nobody knows - is he in Mexico? Is he outside of Mexico? There has been very little in the way of fresh developments recently, especially around trying to find the people who helped him escape.

GREENE: William Neuman is a Latin American correspondent for The New York Times. Thanks so much for joining us.

NEUMAN: Thanks very much, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.