The True Story Of El Chapos

I was sitting at a table on my own at a restaurant in Acapulco’s Zocalo enjoying a glass of wine and indulging in my favorite pastime of people watching when I was approached by an older, thin, grey haired man one evening last summer.

He asked me if I would like another drink, which I declined politely as I had no desire to fuck a 70-something-year-old, because well, one thing I’ve learned in my 50-years on earth is that there’s no such thing as a free drink—but when he asked if he could join me anyway, I accepted, albeit a tad grudgingly.

The man introduced himself as Leonardo Beltrán Santana, which didn’t ring any bells for me at the time, and he said he felt “compelled” to approach me because I had a look of immense sadness (a common perception due to my oftentimes resting bitch face).

I figured that some company might be nice, as at that stage I hadn’t really talked to anybody in person for a couple of months. So I ordered us a bottle of wine, which turned into two after we became engrossed in a conversation that was both interesting and intriguing, even with my embarrassing limited grasp of Spanish.

Leonardo asked me what I was doing in Acapulco, and I told him that I had moved there from San Andres Totoltepec following a violent assault at the hands of my abusive ex, which had culminated in me being raped by a fake taxi driver. It was a long story, but I shared the Cliff Notes version with him. 

Then he told me his story, which was considerably longer, arguably more dramatic, gripping and well, fucking awful.

It transpired that Leonardo was attempting to rebuild his life after being released from The Reclusorio Ventil Preventivo Oriente prison, more commonly known as Reclusorio Oriente, in 2010 after serving nine years behind bars, for a crime, he claims, he didn’t commit.

Reclusorio Oriente is infamous for its chronic overcrowding, it’s the most populous facility in the Mexico City area, with an overflow of an estimated 6,000 prisoners living in squalid conditions, the majority of which are forced to sleep in packed and noisy dormitories, sharing double bunk beds that are spaced a meagre 36 inches apart from each other.

Inmates have complained of deplorable levels of harassment from guards at the facility, including constant shake-downs, theft of personal property and little to no time allocated to being allowed out of confinement for fresh air or exercise. The facility has fallen into such disrepair that when it rains the basement area floods, forcing prisoners to walk through sewage in order to shower.

Adding to the horror, Leonardo claimed that he was tortured by guards for days upon his arrival, and his misshapen hands, with fingers that would barely bend would appear to back up his story. In addition to his poor physical condition Leonardo’s spirit had been broken, having initially spent a considerable amount of time being held in solitary confinement, and his eyes were teary as he related the full extent of his ordeal, detailing the grave injustice that he’d been subjected to.

Leonardo isn’t your run-of-the-mill criminal, he comes from a privileged background, with a father who was a respected Judge and a lucrative work history in the legal field under his belt. 

Before his incarceration Leonardo had enjoyed life on the other side of the bars, going from working as a high-level attorney to managing some of the largest and most notorious prisons in the country. 

Leonardo admitted that he hadn’t always been as “nice” a person as he claimed he is now—he confessed to having been an “asshole” in his past life and boasted of a lavish lifestyle living in a huge mansion, with chauffeurs, bodyguards, endless champagne and lobster dinners, buying his wife countless fur coats, designer purses and everything her heart desired.

Leonardo went into more detail about his background, claiming he came from a hugely wealthy and influential family, and professed to having been a flawed man, somebody who was rude and arrogant and took life for granted. He remarked that I very likely wouldn’t have liked him back then (a pretty fair assumption I’d say) and admitted that when he was in charge of prison inmates he abused his position of power, on occasion. 

All in all, it made for a gripping story, a mea culpa that was packed full of pathos and emotion, involving an almost biblical fall from grace.

During his career in corrections, Beltrán Santana had managed the maximum security facilities Islas Marías Federal Prison located off the coast of Nayarit, and Cefereso 1, Almoloya in Santa Juana Centro, Estado de Mexico, before landing the coveted role of Director of Cefereso 2, in Puente Grande, near Guadalajara in early 2000.

It was there that Beltrán Santana met two people who would change his life forever—Puente Grande’s Vice-Deputy Director, Dámaso López Núñez and Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera. The latter, the infamous drug baron commonly known as El Chapo, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, was serving a twenty year sentence on charges of murder and drug trafficking after being extradited to Mexico following his arrest in Guatamala in 1993.

Thanks to a treaty drawn up in 1978 between Mexican President José López Portillo, and US President Jimmy Carter, Chapo was facing the prospect of being sent to the US to face justice, undoubtedly a far worse fate for the organized crime boss than kicking his heels in a Mexican jail. 

Guzmán had been sent to Puente Grande in 1995, four years before Núñez arrived in 1999 as the newly appointed Director of Security. Pretty much right from the get-go Núñez, who had previously been employed as the Head of the Judicial Police in Chapo’s home state of Sinaloa, buddied up to his high-profile charge, whom he referred to as “compadre” (godfather).

According to court documents, and multiple accounts from prison staff and former inmates, Chapo wasn’t forced to live with the hoi polloi during his time at Puente Grande, far from it in fact. Guzmán was housed in a private, superior accommodation with air conditioning no less, and treated more like a king than a convict.

A 2019 report from Human Rights Watch documents the horrifying conditions and human rights abuses that occur inside Mexico’s maximum security jails for those less fortunate than Guzmán, claiming two out of three prisoners suffer some type of physical violence, including electric shocks, choking, and smothering. Facilities are dangerously overcrowded, drug and alcohol abuse is rampant and prisoners are forced to purchase their own food, drinking water, medicine, and other necessities from guards, or fork out bribes in order for family members to provide for their basic needs. 

Between 2013 and 2018, 2,751 inmates died in Mexican prisons.

Correctional staff are often insufficiently or badly trained and they’re paid poorly, making them ripe for corruption. Guards at state facilities earn just $6,000 pesos a month ($260 US) while those at the more dangerous federal facilities earn around $15,000 ($650 US)—so it’s easy to see how someone like Chapo, who was estimated to have racked up somewhere between $4-12 billion during his 30-year long career, landing him on Forbes magazine’s annual list of the world’s most wealthy, could easily afford a life of luxury on the inside.

Multiple witnesses who testified during Chapo’s 2018 trial in New York, claimed that the drug kingpin literally had the run of the jail, earning himself the nickname of “el dueño” (the owner), in addition to having the majority of its staff in his pocket.

Chapo’s main lackey was Núñez though, he fielded all of Guzmán’s handwritten notes requesting contraband be delivered from the outside, such as shoes and new clothes, cell phones, microwave ovens, alcohol, viagra and other illicit drugs. 

In addition, Guzmán’s wife, brother, brother-in-law and friends were allowed to come and go as they pleased—even staying at the jail for an entire week one time, and a slew of different prostitutes (dubbed “The Faceless”) were permitted to visit Chapo and his two incarcerated cartel buddies, Héctor Luis “El Güero” Palmer, and Arturo “El Texas” Martínez Herrera, for up to three days at a stretch.

Núñez also aided Chapo in forming a riot squad, known as “the Sinaloans” which helped further bolster his control of the jail, and add pressure on any unwilling staff members to go onto the payroll, so it’s little surprise that an estimated nine out of ten of the jail’s employees, along with all of the inmates, answered to Guzmán and his buddies, who were collectively nicknamed “The Three” (Chapo, of course, held the title of “Lord of the Three”).

One of the many Puente Grande employees on the payroll, Armando Ramírez Mejía, claimed that the seasoned narcos ran their bribery system like a well oiled machine, paying out each month, without fail. 

“The sub commanders had 9,000 pesos each,” Ramírez Mejía testified in court. “The company commanders corresponded 30 thousand pesos a month per head. To the deputy directors, they distributed 45 thousand pesos for each one and to the observers, technical personnel, 6 thousand pesos. 

“The above was aware of the lawyer Leonardo Beltrán Santana, director of Puente Grande and he had around 50 thousand pesos a month.

“The officers in prevention received 250 pesos per completed guard. To each element of the checkpoint, there were also 2,000 pesos a day. The payment scheme was so packed that the payday was scheduled. El Chapo paid on the 15th of each month, El Güero on the 25th and El Texas on the 28th.”

Ramírez, who was subsequently sentenced to 8-years for his alleged role in Chapo’s escape, went on to explain the pressure jail employees were under to accept bribes.

“At first we were warned that if we didn’t take the money, we’d better quit, so I agreed to receive that money to keep my job,” he said. “Also, he knew that everyone received money. They sent us the money through the inmate Jaime Valencia Fontes, Joaquín Guzmán Loera’s private secretary.”

In addition to his regular conjugal visits and frequent dalliances with prostitutes, Chapo also had at least three sexual “affairs” during his time at the prison—with two different inmates, Zulema Hernández Ramírez and Diana Patricia and Ives Eréndira Moreno Arriola, a cook in the jail’s kitchen who unwittingly caught Guzmán’s eye one day.

Hernandez was 23-years old when she started an affair with 43-year-old prisoner 516, she became pregnant twice and was forced to undergo an abortion both times. When Chapo eventually grew tired of Hernandez he started pimping her out to inmates and staff at the prison, and her situation became so dire that she attempted suicide twice. Things didn’t improve for Zulema after she was released from jail, in 2008 she was discovered dead in the trunk of a car, with the letter “Z” caved into her stomach, breasts and buttocks—it’s believed she was murdered by the Cartel de Los Zetas in a retaliation killing.

Patricia didn’t fare much better. She was 27-years old when she was convicted of murder and ended up in Puente Grande. Like many other prisons in Mexico at that time, Puente Grande didn’t separate the male and female inmates, and when she was first admitted Diana was the only female in the facility. Without any outside network to help support her Diana was dying from starvation after three months and started suffering from depression, resulting in an attempted suicide. Six months into her incarceration Patricia had lost over 55 pounds in weight and with her ever deepening depression she made a perfect victim for a seasoned predator like Joaquín Guzmán. Sure enough, Chapo swooped in, raping the woman multiple times. Patricia tried to complain to prison officials but they simply ignored her pleas for help. Shortly before Chapo’s escape she attempted to take her own life again.

Moreno managed to survive her ordeal, but encountering Guzmán still wrecked her life. The 38-year-old single mom did her best to spurn Chapo’s advances but he was relentless in his pursuit of her. After offering her his “friendship” Chapo bombarded Moreno with bouquets of flowers sent to her home and relentless phone calls professing his love. She held out as long as possible, but knowing the dangers that came along with saying no to Guzmán she eventually gave in and started an affair with him. Shortly after Patricia resigned from the prison, hoping that would be the end of the dalliance, but Chapo wasn’t letting go that easily. He called her incessantly, offering to buy her a car, a house and her own business, but despite her rejecting all of his offers he persisted with the harassment until he wore her down. Patricia ended up returning to the prison for “conjugal” visits with Chapo, which she was financially compensated for—her corruption was complete. 

After one such visit she encountered Beltrán who had witnessed her leaving Chapo’s cell. Patricia claims her ex-employer “just looked her in the eye and smiled” knowingly.

The frightened former cook told Guzmán about the incident and he made it crystal clear that it wouldn’t be a problem.

“Don’t worry, Beltrán is aware of everything, I give him about forty or fifty thousand pesos a month, I make some payments in dollars. Don’t worry, I have everything under control,” Chapo reassured her.

So much for my new friend’s claims of innocence and salty crocodile tears. Pinche pendejo. 

It seems Beltrán hadn’t been lying when he’d confessed to me that he had been an “asshole” back in the day—by all accounts there’s little doubt that in addition to turning a blind eye to the bad and criminal behavior that was occurring inside the prison he was supposedly in charge of, he was also profiting financially from its star inmate. However, was he also involved in Chapo’s escape?

Guzmán’s breakout from Puente Grande occurred on January 19, 2001, eight years into his sentence. According to the Mexican government’s initial version of events, Chapo had hidden in a cart full of dirty laundry and was wheeled out of the facility, past a total of six internal security checks, by a low level prison employee named Francisco Javier Camberos Rivera, AKA “El Chito”.

The escape was hugely embarrassing for the Mexican government, as Chapo was facing extradition to the US at the time. The newly elected President, Vicente Fox, had been in office for just over a year when the breakout occured and he publicly vowed to bring all those responsible to justice in addition to hunting down and locking up Guzmán again.

It would take a whopping 13 years though before Chapo was recaptured, on February 22, 2014, during which time he went on to become the most wanted fugitive in the country. However, Fox did manage to make good on his first promise, apprehending 73 different people and prosecuting a total of 60, including  Beltrán who was sentenced to 18 years and 4 months on charges of “inmate evasion”—which was reduced to 11 years on appeal—he was released after serving 9 years. 

While Beltrán had been languishing in jail, his former deputy, Dámaso López Núñez had been flourishing. López had resigned from Puente Grande in 2000, one year before Chapo’s escape, but had remained in close contact with the former prisoner-turned-compadre. Their relationship had become so close in fact that López went on to join the Sinaloa cartel, with the blessing of Guzmán, and admitted to receiving at least $10,000 US in payment for looking after Chapo in jail, in addition to his son’s medical expenses being covered and the gift of a house worth $1.5 million pesos.

López also copped to accepting bribes, but denied any involvement in Chapo’s escape, despite allegedly handing over blueprints of the prison to Guzmán and discussing the facility’s security and surveillance systems. However, his new cartel career didn’t end well, López who was then going by the alias “El Licenciado” was arrested in Mexico City in May 2017 and extradited to the US where he was sentenced to life in prison on charges of conspiring to distribute cocaine and committing money laundering.

Another one bites the dust.

A second version of events surrounding Chapo’s escape later transpired, after it was claimed that Guzmán actually made his getaway in a garbage truck—the details of which were “hazy” to say the least.

Then, in 2013 an investigative reporter named Anabel Hernández García, threw a whole new, shocking, claim into the mix.

In her book “Los Señorres del Narco” Hernández alleges that Chapo didn’t escape via a laundry cart or garbage truck, but in fact he just walked out of the front door of the prison, dressed as a policeman, and she points the finger of blame directly at Vicente Fox Quesada. 

Oh snap!

Hernández claims that Fox was paid a whopping $20 million US to facilitate the release of Guzmán and that he received the money just days before Chapo’s escape.

Not surprisingly, Fox denies any involvement in the incident, but Hernández alleges that following his escape Chapo himself confessed to bribing Fox during a conversation with General Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro.

Adding further credence to her claims, Jesús “El Rey” Zambada, who headed up operations for the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico City, testified under oath during Chapo’s New York trial that he personally paid bribes to high-level officials in the Fox government.

As if that’s not damaging enough, a Colombian drug trafficker named Alex Cifuentes also incriminated Fox during his testimony at the same trial, claiming, “The Sinaloa Cartel contributed millions of dollars to the Fox and PRI (Francisco Labastida Ochoa) campaign, so whoever won, they were fine.” 

Since leaving office Fox has become an outspoken advocate for the legalization of not only the consumption, but also the production, distribution, and sale of every class of drug. 

Meanwhile, it seems that little to nothing has changed inside Puente Grande prison, despite an extensive investigation into the rampant corruption that led up to the escape of Chapo. In 2017 shocking video emerged from inside the facility, that was secretly recorded sometime around 2016, showing inmates living it up at a boozy party thrown by José Luis “Don Chelo” Gutiérrez Valencia, a high ranking member of the Sinaloa cartel who is credited with “running” the prison. 

Hmmm…sounds familiar?

In the video, which Chelo reportedly requested be shot so he could give copies to his guests, the inmate is seen flanked by bodyguards while his fellow prisoners, and women and children who were invited inside for the festivities, drink, eat tacos and dance to the band Los Buchones de Culiacán who were hired to play at the party.

At one point, Chelo can be heard boasting to his guests, “I’m the one who rules here. Ask for what you want, I’ll make you sure you’ll have it.”

“Nobody gets out of here. I do whatever I want here,” he’s later heard telling the crowd. “I respect the government so you respect me. I will always do my own thing.”

Not a single prison guard is spotted throughout the entire two hour video.

As for Leonardo Beltrán Santana, he continues to live his new “humbler” life—dividing his time between Mexico City with his wife, where he’s employed as Estado de Mexico’s Notary 96, and Acapulco where he spends weekends as a bachelor, enjoying the ocean view from his penthouse apartment.

Beltrán maintains his innocence, insisting he was made a scapegoat by Fox, who he was once buddies with and even campaigned heavily for during his successful Presidential bid. However, he says that the public still believe he is guilty as charged, something he finds laughable.

“People think I’m guilty and that I was on Chapo’s payroll,” he told me. “It’s ridiculous. If that was true, where’s all the money I supposedly received? Buried in a field somewhere?!!”

Sadly, it’s likely I’ll never learn the truth, as I no longer speak to Beltrán—our friendship ended abruptly after he pushed me up against a wall and tried to sexually assault me.

Boys will be boys after all.

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