El Chapo’s safe house to be given away in lottery by Mexico’s government

By Associated Press
Drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera in January 2016 in Mexico City as he was escorted by Mexican soldiers following his recapture. | Eduardo Verdugo / AP file

CULIACAN, Mexico — The house that former drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera fled in 2014 when Mexican marines had him surrounded has undergone some changes as the Mexican government prepares to give it away in a national lottery.

The surveillance cameras that covered every angle of the modest home’s exterior? Removed. The hole under a bathtub that Guzmán slipped through to reach a network of tunnels? Now covered with a concrete slab.

Those are some of the changes that a reporter for The Associated Press saw after being given given access to the property in a quiet Culiacan neighborhood ahead of the lottery.

In recent weeks, Mexico’s Institute to Return Stolen Goods to the People, known by its initials as INDEP, also gave it a fresh coat of white paint inside and out and tiled over the spot in the bathroom where the tub and tunnel entry point used to be.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been talking up his government’s plans for a national lottery of seized properties but hadn’t mentioned the history of this particular house that once belonged to the ruthless former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Lottery tickets for sale are displayed in Mexico City. Mexico’s lottery is giving away property seized from drug lords a prizes, among them a house belonging to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera in Wednesday’s draw.

INDEP’s website lists it only as “Casa en Culiacán.” It’s about 2,800 square feet and located, perhaps appropriately, in a neighborhood called Libertad — Freedom. The government values the two-bedroom home at $183,000.

The house had been abandoned for years. The marines did some damage when they searched it, so repairs were necessary.

Guzmán escaped that time through the tunnels. But his freedom lasted only days. On Feb. 22, 2014, the marines descended again, this time in a condo on the coast in Mazatlan.

By then, Guzmán already had a reputation for daring escapes. He’d slipped out of one of Mexico’s maximum-security prisons in 2001, supposedly in a laundry cart.

In July 2015, less than a year and half after his capture in Mazatlan, Guzmán slipped through a tunnel dug up to the drain in his cell’s shower and rode a motorcycle on tracks laid through a tunnel to escape another maxium-security Mexican prison.

The marines captured him again six months later in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, where he had been holed up in another unremarkable home.

Guzmán was extradited to the United States, tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison in July 2019.

INDEP officials, who declined to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak, said they were surprised the house was getting attention. It’s hardly luxurious. There is no swimming pool or any of the ostentation that typically characterizes other narco properties in Sinaloa.

People nearby said they didn’t know who their neighbor was.

“We never knew anything, we never knew who lived there, we never saw anyone,” said one neighbor, who quickly cut off the conversation.

Many aren’t interested in speaking of Guzmán or even saying his name in a place where the Sinaloa Cartel remains powerful.

The house was well located for its previous purposes. There is a neighbor only on one side. On the other is a subterranean storm sewer — Culiacan built many of them to deal with torrential rains — which is where the bathroom tunnel connected to make Guzmán’s escape possible. A school is across the street.

On the morning of Feb. 17, 2014, the neighborhood suddenly was filled with the marines’ gray trucks, blocking traffic. There was no doubt they were interested in this house.

But they didn’t find Guzmán there. In fact, during his trial in New York, a witness testified that Guzmán wasn’t in any of the five houses marines searched, despite reports at the time to the contrary.

Five days after the unsuccessful search, the marines caught up to Guzmán 125 miles to the south in Mazatlan, where he was staying with his wife Emma Coronel and their twin daughters.

INDEP tried to auction off the home last year, starting the bidding at about $130,000. But there were no takers.

Now, López Obrador is giving it away as part of the lottery, with the drawing set for Wednesday — the day before Mexico celebrates its Independence Day.

The proceeds are to go to Mexico’s Olympic athletes.

In downtown Mexico City, lottery ticket vendors said sales have been good. Jorge López said he’s been selling 100 to 120 of the $12 tickets a day since last week.

“Right now, it’s selling very well,” he said.

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