Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Escape of the Century: 21 years later

It was 4 am when a prison guard walking down the halls of the Cereso prison in the resort city of Mazatlan, Sinaloa made a shocking discovery. All the inmates from Module 8 were gone. The alarm was sounded, the warden notified. 4 hours later the news astounded Sinaloa state, Mexico and the world.

97 prisoners had escaped through a narrow tunnel that barely made it five feet out of the perimeteral wall.

All was confusion at the Mazatlan CERESO (Social Readaptation Center in English) the morning of November 14th, 1989. Sometime during the night, ninety seven prisoners had escaped in what was already being dubbed "The Break of the Century" by the Mexican media. Almost immediately, Cuautemoc Conde Garcia, the prison warden, his brother a Judicial Police agent and all of the staff working the night shift was arrested. How had 97 inmates, most of them in prison for drug trafficking charges, had vanished so easily?

Upon inspection they found a small hole in the floor, under a cot inside Cell Number 20. Following the hole and narrow tunnel, they found it led to another opening, mere feet from the prisons walls. Then it was every man for himself, the inmates escaped into the surrounding foliage and hills.

Roadblocks were set up throught Mazatlan and Sinaloa state. One of the escaped was cousin of drug kingpin Rafael Caro Quintero, and others were related to Manuel Salcido Uzeta "Crazy Pig", drug boss of Mazatlan. 2 inmates were quickly recaptured. One was found drunk in the street, beligerently waving a bottle another one was arrested near the jail.

While the inmates sought refuge in the Sierra Madre, Warden Conde Garcia and his brother and other guards were being harshly interrogated at the Attorney General's Offices in Mazatlan. A desk was moved aside at Antonio Rosales de la Garzas office and a board set up on two chairs. On it, Conde and the 25 other guards arrested were tortured using "waterboarding methods". They told Conde Garcia they would drill a hole in his teeth and stick electrical wires to shock him unless he confessed to having being bribed to let the prisoners escape.

At Conde and his brothers home, police confiscated millions of Pesos claiming the brothers had been bribed in other to let the tunnel be built and allowing the escape. Conde vehemently denied this and publicly denounced his torture at the PGR headquarters. He had been shocked with cattle prods in his gums and on his testicles. On November 24, Cuahtemoc Conde attempted suicide by throwing himself off a staircase at the PGR offices. He survived with minor injuries and was taken to the Naval Hospital. There Mexican Navy officials protected him and prevented any further torture.

Months later, Antonio Rosales de la Garza and others were arrested for torture and other charges for the injuries inflicted on Conde and the others. They were sent precisely to the CERESO in Mazatlan.

Months after the escape, reporters for Culiacan newspaper Noroeste visited the prison and the tunnel. Some of the inmates that escaped were fat and robust and could have not fit inside the small openings and narrow tunnel. The reporters alleged that it was all a plot against Conde Garcia, the building of a fake tunnel, the liberation of prisoners through other means, all aimed at destroying Conde, who had been director of the CERESO for a few months. All orchestrated, by unknown Sinaloa state officials.

This claim is also supported by Conde, who to this day refuses to name the officials whom he says are still active politically and have the power "to kill him".


  1. As a young teenage gringo, I was imprisoned in EL CERESO back in 1989. I stayed in this very cell along with my incarcerated teenage friend who was locked up with me. This escape did exist and the hole has been sealed with concrete.

    The inmate missionaries occupied this cell 20 following the escape. Not sure why they did but I guess the prison officials felt it was safer having the religious inmates occupying this cell.

    There were numerous prison guards that were locked up in the same prison after this escape. We had tried to escape through the cell wall with a spoon. Ironically, one of the prison guards from this escape was locked up in the cell next to us and called the guards. When the guards came into our cell, my friend Scott told the police that our money was being stolen and we were trying to hide it in the hole. Amazingly we were let off and not beaten for the escape attempt.

    EL CERESO is no joke. American's visiting Mazatlan must realize that the drug cartels exist and are not to be fooled with nor is Mazatlan to be taken lightly. Walk within the law or suffer the wrath as I did.

    I have so many stories from this time of my life and my experiences in EL CERESO. It is to never be forgotten in my mind and the respect I have for the drug cartel and their fierce power is real.

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