Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has, for decades, been on both Mexico’s and America’s most wanted list. Presently in incarceration at the Manhattan Metropolitan Correctional Center in New York, he, in 2015, made headlines when he escaped from Altiplano prison in Mexico via a mile long tunnel. The prison break was incredibly embarrassing for the Mexican government, with President Enrique Peña Nieto vowing to put El Chapo back behind bars.
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That said, another prison break in Mexico rivals El Chapo Guzman’s in sheer audacity, and it was that of Joel David Kaplan, an American businessman. He and Carlos Antonio Contreras Castro, a Venezuelan counterfeiter, undertook one of the most uncanny prison breaks in the country’s history by using a helicopter painted with colors similar to those used by the Mexican Attorney General’s office. This was on August 19, 1971.
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The helicopter, which had been bought for the sole purpose of the break out, landed in the middle of the prison yard, and the two dashed out of their cells and into the chopper. The prison break inspired the book The 10-Second Jailbreak. The following is an excerpt of a report detailing the incident, as reported by Time.
“Most of the 136 guards at Mexico City’s Santa Maria Acatitla prison were watching a movie with the prisoners last week when a Bell helicopter, similar in color to the Mexican attorney general’s, suddenly clattered into the prison yard. Some of the guards on duty presented arms, supposing that the helicopter had brought an unexpected official visitor.
“What they got was a different sort of surprise. As the chopper set down on the paving stones, two prisoners dashed out of Cell No. 10. The men were airborne in less than two minutes. One of the most enterprising jailbreaks in modern times had been accomplished without a shot being fired.”
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Apparently, their wives and a white gentleman, who seemed to be checking out the facility, had visited the prison a day earlier. Kaplan had been serving time for the murder of Louis Vidal, Jr., his business partner. Although Vidal’s body had been found, there were questions as to whether it was actually his.
At his trial, Kaplan stated that Vidal had faked his own death in order to disappear. Vidal was apparently involved in the Mexican drug trade and gun-running. Following their Hollywood-style prison break, Kaplan and Antonio were apparently dropped at an airport close to the facility, where they boarded a private plane to Texas. They allegedly split up, with Antonio heading to Guatemala and Kaplan to California.
However, the most controversial aspect of the escape was the legality factor. According to Kaplan, he did not break any laws by breaking out of the Mexican prison. As, apparently, there was no damage caused and no one was killed or injured. The fact that the helicopter had been bought and not rented also nullified the element of improperly using the property.
And about the flight, everything had been done in accordance with existing FAA standards. The fact that he gave his legal names while speaking with customs officials also ruled out impersonation charges. At the time, Mexican authorities pointed to the use of an accomplice as illegal.
However, no extradition request was ever filed. According to Kaplan’s lawyer, “His escape, was perfectly legal since jail breaks are a crime in Mexico only if violence is used against prison personnel or property or if prison inmates or officials aid the escape.” After the audacious, but controversial prison break, Kaplan has never been pursued by either American or Mexican authorities, but has kept a low profile since. As for El Chapo Guzman, he is currently facing a 17-count indictment that includes drug distribution and money laundering charges.
[Featured Image by U.S. law enforcement via AP Images]