by BJW Nashe
At the peak of his power and notoriety, “El Chapo” Guzman — head of the Sinaloa Drug Cartel — liked to show up unannounced at Mexican restaurants with a posse of heavily armed bodyguards, and then treat the bewildered patrons to a free dinner. A November 2005 incident at a popular dining spot in Culiacan, capitol of Sinaloa, gives us an indication of how these surprise parties were handled.
On this cool autumn evening, fifteen of Guzman’s henchmen — all carrying assault rifles — marched into Las Palmas, a lime green eatery with a tile roof and a large dining room. Their first priority was to secure the premises and keep everybody calm. A quick announcement was made to everyone present:
“Gentlemen, please. Give me a moment of your time. A man is going to come in — the Boss. We will ask you to remain in your seats; the doors will be closed and nobody is allowed to leave. You will also not be allowed to use your cellulars. Do not worry; if you do everything that is asked of you, nothing will happen. Continue eating and don’t ask for your check. The Boss will pay. Thank you.”
The stunned crowd sat in silence as El Chapo made his entrance through the front door. Standing only five-foot-six (Chapo means “Shorty”), he was nonetheless cloaked in an aura of invincibility. The sight of burly men toting cuernos de chivo — narco slang for AK-47s — lends an air of gravitas to just about any occasion. Chapo tried to put his “guests” at ease with a bit of socializing, as if he was a visiting dignitary. Calmly circulating through the room, the Boss greeted his random dinner companions with a smattering of kind words. “Hello, nice to meet you. How are you? I’m Joaquin Guzman Loera. A pleasure. At your service,” he crooned as he shook their hands and smiled.
With the doors locked and cell phones seized by the armed bodyguards, the folks in Las Palmas had no choice but to join El Chapo as he sat down to devour a hearty meal. He was quite fond of Mexican surf-and-turf — heaping plates full of grilled steak and fist-sized shrimp. Restroom breaks for the guests were presumably monitored by the guards. The cooks, sweating bullets in the kitchen, must have taken great care to avoid mistakes with the food. With Chapo, errors often led to mutilation and death. Any meal with the drug kingpin could turn at any moment into a dark and bloody version of the Food Network’s show “Chopped.” On this occasion, however, everything went smoothly. Everyone was able to leave fat and happy and fully intact. At the conclusion of dinner, the Boss did indeed pick up the tab. We can only assume he left a generous tip. Sinoloa was his home base, after all, and it was important now and then to put on a show of gangster largesse — at least for those who remained loyal and caused no trouble. As for the others — well, they tended to get tortured and killed.
These bizarre dining experiences, which Guzman repeated on several occasions, are now part of the El Chapo legend. The fact that they occurred while he was the subject of an intense international manhunt, with a multi-million dollar award offered to anyone who could verify his whereabouts, only enhances Chapo’s reputation as a larger-than-life crime figure — possibly the most rich and powerful drug trafficker of all time.
The Boss Gets Busted
There will be no more restaurant surprises or free dinners with El Chapo Guzman. On February 22, 2014, he was arrested by Mexican authorities in a beachfront condominium in Mazatlan, where he was hoping to sneak a visit with his beautiful young wife and twin daughters, knowing all along that law enforcement was closing in on him and his associates. Amazingly enough, no shots were fired and no one was seriously injured during the predawn raid, which was the culmination of several months spent trying to reel in the Boss. Information gathered from recent arrests of several key figures in the Sinaloan Cartel allowed the authorities to zero in on the Mazatlan condo. Once they located the hideout, Mexican marines carried out their mission with surgical precision, using infrared and body-heat scanners to pinpoint the locations of everyone inside the condo, verifying that they were asleep. Chapo was snoozing shirtless next to his beauty-queen wife, with an AK-47 next to the bed. Both of his two year-old daughters were also asleep on the premises. Everyone was caught by surprise — including Chapo’s lone bodyguard, who was easily apprehended.
All agree that this operation could have ended far worse than it did. Instead of a bloody gun battle, Guzman was slapped around a bit, placed under arrest, and then whisked away to a police helicopter and flown directly to Mexico City International Airport, where he was paraded before cameras at a hastily scheduled press conference. Then he was given another helicopter ride — this time to the Federal Social Readaptation Center No. 1, a maximum-security prison in Almoloya de Juárez. He is being held in a highly restricted area of the prison, where inmates are not allowed to interact with each other. The billionaire crime boss — who owns mansions, villas, and ranches throughout northern Mexico — is now trapped alone in a windowless cell with a bed, a shower, and a toilet.
Guzman has been charged with drug trafficking and organized crime violations. His legal situation is complicated because so many people in so many places want to prosecute him for so many crimes. No fewer than five different federal courts in Mexico have lined up to saddle El Chapo with criminal charges. Mexican law, however, does not allow anyone — even a violent drug lord — to be sentenced more than once for the same offense. To further complicate matters, U.S. government officials are eager to seek Guzman’s extradition for multiple cases pending in New York, Chicago, and several other jurisdictions.
El Chapo will be well-versed in the law by the time all the smoke clears and justice is administered once and for all. No doubt he can afford the best attorneys money can buy, and he is going to need them. They will explain everything to him in painstaking detail through each step of the long, agonizing process. There will be nothing remotely pleasurable or exciting about any of this, but Chapo must figure it’s better than being riddled with bullets in front of his wife and kids.
A Smooth Leadership Transition
We might heave a sigh of relief, knowing that the undisputed leader of one of the most violent crime syndicates in history has finally been apprehended. Yet we are now faced with an ugly realization — namely, that the Boss’s arrest will not make much difference in the grand scheme of things. The vast international drug trade will continue unabated. A recent article in The Guardian quoted a former senior Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official under presidents Bush and Obama: “Chapo’s arrest will have no effect on drug trafficking. If you are making a car and suddenly 15 people on the production line die, it is going to take a while to train new people. But if the CEO dies, it is actually no big deal – the machine is going to continue.”
Corporate lingo has a way of creeping into public discourse surrounding El Chapo — and it’s easy to understand why. The Sinaloan Cartel is so massive and powerful that it makes sense to view it as a giant corporation — albeit one that sells illegal products and clings to extremely violent business practices. The sheer volume of drugs the cartel has been shipping into the United States — hundreds of tons of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine — requires a complex international network of production and distribution lines. Huge factories are needed to manufacture and/or prepare the product. Shipping involves planes, trucks, boats, submarines, and tunnels. Top-notch security is essential. Various businesses and financial institutions must be utilized for laundering cash. And the amount of money involved is staggering. The annual drug trade from Mexico is worth approximately $6.5 billion. El Chapo’s personal net worth has been estimated at more than $1 billion.
In organized crime, as in the legitimate business world, effective leaders are the difference between boom and bust, and the consequences of failure can be far-reaching. Hence we note plenty of discussion over the need for a “smooth leadership transition” in the Sinaloan Cartel, now that Guzman’s long reign of terror appears to be finished. Many are worried that a vacuum of power could lead to greater instability and violence, as rivals battle each other to gain control over the empire. Many fear that Chapo’s replacement will be more ruthless and violent than he was. Guzman was a fairly reasonable man, in the context of drug cartels. One wonders how irrational and egomaniacal his successor will be. Meet the new boss; worse than the old boss.
Few people know exactly what selecting a new boss will consist of — aside from tribal knowledge and raw power. Chapo did not leave behind any Powerpoint presentations on “smooth leadership transition in drug cartels.” No clearly defined procedures exist, as they do for selecting the next Pope or hiring a new CEO at General Motors. There is no board of directors, no application process, no list of “desired qualifications.” We can assume that strong candidates will have a firm grasp of drug trafficking, be comfortable with guns, have decent math skills, and be able to strike fear into the hearts of subordinates. The full job description is probably best gleaned from Chapo’s own high-octane biography.
Longevity is the Key to Success
It’s remarkable that El Chapo was able to prosper for so long — let alone stroll into restaurants — given the perilous nature of his business. The Mexican drug cartels are steeped in such extreme treachery and mayhem that they make the mid-20th century skirmishes of New York and Chicago mobsters seem like gentlemen’s disagreements. Working for the Mexican cartels means finding a way to somehow survive despite endless drug wars and gunfights and torture and beheadings. Thousands of people have been killed during this 30 year crime wave. Here you don’t simply assassinate a key rival; you massacre his entire family — the wife, children, uncles, cousins, and anyone else who might be connected to them. The narcobosses stress the need to mochar parejo, or “wipe the slate clean.” Creating total fear through maximum cruelty is de rigeur. For these men, the chainsaw scene in Scarface isn’t horrifying — it’s inspirational, a springboard to further terrors involving blowtorches and electrodes and machetes.
Yet Chapo was able to thrive in this environment longer than anyone else, eventually earning a spot on the Forbes list of the hundred most powerful men in the world. How did he do it? How many drug wars and manhunts and assassination attempts and betrayals can one man survive during a single lifetime?
Portrait of the Drug Lord as a Young Man
El Chapo was born Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera in either 1954 or 1957 (sources differ on the precise date) in La Tuna, Badiraguato, Sinaloa, Mexico. As a teenager he was involved in cultivation and sales of both opium poppies and marijuana. Once he reached young adulthood, he was eager to embark on a career in organized crime. For a man seeking status and wealth, the drug trade must have seemed like the best game in town. During the 1970s, Guzman rose in the ranks of the Guadalajara Cartel, which at the time had monopolized drug trafficking in Mexico. The Guadalajara crew was impressed by young Chapo’s intense drive and ambition. If a smuggler was late with a delivery, Guzman would promptly shoot him in the head. This style of doing business earns high marks from most cartel bosses.
Soon Guzman was working for one of the top drug czars in Mexico, Felix Gallardo, who trusted Chapo enough to put him in charge of “logistics.” Guzman began coordinating large shipments of drugs from Colombia to Mexico via land, air, and sea. At the time, the Mexican gangs played the role of middleman between the powerful Colombian drug cartels and distributors within the U.S. — which was and still is the largest marketplace for illegal drugs. When the U.S. government started cracking down on the Colombians during the “cocaine cowboy” heyday of the 1980s, the Mexican cartels were able to assume a more prominent role in the international drug trade. Guzman found himself in the right place at the right time to rise to prominence, and he made the most of the opportunity.
Meet the New Boss
When the Guadalajara Cartel faced repercussions for the torture and execution of a DEA agent who’d been acting as an informer, a “drug summit” was held in Acapulco. Here the empire was divided up into separate territories, controlled respectively by the Tijuana Cartel, the Juarez Cartel, the Gulf Cartel, and the Sinaloa Cartel. This arrangement may have made sense at the time, but in the years ahead it would lead to bitter rivalries that often escalated into intense violence and warfare.
As one of the principal leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel – which was specifically in charge of the drug corridors of Tecate, Baja California, Mexicali, and San Luis Río Colorado — Guzman showed early on that he was not to be trifled with. His long, drawn-out battle with the Tijuana Cartel in the early 1990s is considered one of the most violent episodes in the history of organized crime. At one point an associate of Chapo had his wife and children kidnapped. Her head was cut off and mailed to him in a box. Then his kids were tossed off of a bridge. Guzman’s response was prompt and decisive: he sent out the death squads — an army of assassins known as “Los Negros.” A brutal series of gun battles and executions unfolded. It was not uncommon for children walking to school in the morning in Baja or Sinaloa to come across severed heads lying by the side of the road.
Unlike many of the foot soldiers — as well as a scores of innocent bystanders — the “CEO’s” of the Tijuana and Sinaloa cartels managed to survive in the midst of all this pandemonium. Public outrage over the violence reached a peak when the Cardinal and Archbishop of Guadalajara, Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, was gunned down by mistake during a botched attempt to kill Chapo at the Guadalajara International Airport. Twenty gunmen had opened fire at the wrong car, riddling the wrong person with bullets — who just happened to be a prominent figure in the Catholic Church. News of the Archbishop’s senseless death shocked the entire world at the time, putting pressure on the government to halt the drug war at all costs. Law enforcement redoubled their efforts to reign in the cartels. Eventually, the Tijuana Cartel would be decimated. The Sinaloa gangsters, however, would continue to thrive.
First Arrest, Imprisonment, Bribery, and Escape
In 1993, El Chapo was captured in Guatemala and extradited to Mexico, where he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for drug trafficking and murder. By now the Sinaloa Cartel was the wealthiest and most powerful drug trafficking organization in the Western hemisphere. Behind bars, Guzman was able to solidify his role as the undisputed leader of the cartel. He called the shots from inside, while his brother, Arturo Guzmán Loera, known as “El Pollo,” pulled the strings on the outside. The whole operation continued unabated. In fact, it even expanded.
For Chapo, being incarcerated was a serious inconvenience, but nothing to panic about. He had associates deliver suitcases full of cash so he could bribe prison guards and thus maintain his opulent lifestyle. He turned the prison into his own private luxury hotel, with the officials and guards no more than flunkies at his service. In January 2001, Chapo grew restless and decided to bribe his way out of prison altogether. He reportedly forked over $2.5 million to persuade a whole group of prison employees to aid him in his escape. One of the guards clicked open Guzmán’s electronic cell door, allowing him to walk out and crawl inside a laundry cart, which a maintenance worker then rolled through several corridors and straight out of the facility. Chapo then hopped into the trunk of a waiting car and was sped away. According to Mexican officials, 78 people were implicated in the escape plan. The guard who opened Guzman’s cell door is currently serving time in prison for his role in the scheme.
The Most Wanted Man in Mexico
El Chapo spent the next 13 years on the lam. The U.S. government offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture, and the Mexican government offered a similar reward of 30 million pesos (approximately $2 million). Yet the Boss appeared to be untouchable. He was both “everywhere and nowhere at once,” as one commentator put it. He was still firmly in control of the Sinaloa operation, and by all accounts he was enjoying life as a fugitive. He was protected at all times now by a mercenary army of 30 or more heavily armed men dressed in paramilitary uniforms and wholly devoted to keeping the Boss safe 24/7. No doubt there were many people in law enforcement who were more interested in a piece of the action than a gunfight. They were easily bought off. Chapo most likely bribed Mexican government officials with money and information, which allowed the Sinaloa Cartel to keep expanding, while the heavy heat was brought down on rival cartels.
Chapo continued to build his empire. Soon he was operating in 17 out of 31 Mexican states, with drug sales extended to an estimated 50 countries across Latin America, Africa and Europe. He seized control of methamphetamine production and distribution in Mexico, constructing a vast network of industrial-sized meth labs in the country’s remote mountainous regions, while importing bulk shipments of the necessary chemicals from Asia. He put one of his most loyal and ruthless henchmen — Ignacio Coronel Villarreal, “Colonel Crystal” or “The Crystal King” — in charge of the methamphetamine operation. Chapo was willing to delegate authority to those he trusted, because this helped him to stay on the move, avoid detection and entrapment, and function as the Boss of all bosses. And his subordinates knew the price to be paid for disloyalty. They knew all about the blowtorches and electrodes and machetes.
A major power play for Chapo was his hostile takeover of the Ciudad Juarez crossing points, which were controlled by Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, leader of the Juarez Cartel. Despite an uneasy alliance between the two groups, Chapo decided that Fuentes had become a problem. So he decided to fix the problem. In September 2004, Rodolfo was leaving a Culiacan shopping mall with his wife and two young children. Chapo’s assassins — Los Negros — were not hindered at all by the fact that the family was being escorted by a police commander. They ambushed the group, killing Rodolfo and his wife in a blaze of gunfire. Somehow the cop survived.
El Chapo faced internal strife within his own group when five of his top lieutenants — the Beltran Leyva brothers — turned against him. The arrest of one of the brothers led the others to suspect that the Boss had set them up with U.S. DEA agents. When Chapo’s son Edgar was killed as payback, the ensuing violence reached a fever pitch. In May 2008, over 116 people were murdered in Culiacan — 26 of them police officers. In June 2008, another 128 were slain. In July, 143 more were killed. The Mexican Army sent 2000 troops to the area, but even this failed to stop the bloodshed. The war soon spread to other cities, including Guamuchil, Guasave and Mazatlan. Eventually, the Beltran Leyva brothers formed their own independent cartel by relocating to the southern central region of the country and forming an alliance with the Gulf Cartel and the Los Zetas death squads.
In April 2009, Archbishop Hector Gonzalez told the press that the fugitive drug lord El Chapo was “living nearby [in Durango] and everyone knows it except the authorities, who just don’t happen to see him for some reason.” The authorities had either been bribed or were too frightened to do anything. Those who did get close were at great risk. Several days after the Archbiship spoke out in public, the bodies of two military officers were found in the Durango area. They were blindfolded and handcuffed near a bullet-riddled car on the outskirts of a remote village. The officers, both dressed in civilian clothes, had been working as undercover agents until their cover was blown. They were abducted and executed, with a message placed near their bodies: “Neither the government or the priests can handle El Chapo.”
The Authorities Close In
Ten years after his escape from prison, the hunt for El Chapo intensified. In February 2012, Mexican police nearly captured the Boss at a coastal estate in Los Cabos, Baja California just a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with foreign ministers in the same resort town. A year later, in February 2013, Guzman was mistakenly reported being killed in a gun fight near the border between Guatemala and Mexico. When the reporting turned out to be erroneous, the Guatemalan government issued an apology for issuing misleading information. El Chapo probably found this highly amusing. Maybe he celebrated by going out for dinner.
In the months leading up to his 2014 arrest, there were signs that the long party was coming to an end for El Chapo. The son of his top henchman “El Mayo” Zambada was arrested crossing the border into the U.S. Then El Mayo’s top lieutenant — Gonzalo Inzunza, or “El Macho Prieto” — was killed during a four-hour shootout at an oceanside mansion. One of Chapo’s top assassins, El Chino Antrax — who also handled transport and logistics for the cartel — was arrested by police at an Amsterdam airport. The Mexican military followed up with a series of arrests in Culiacan. During the week prior to Guzman’s capture, officials arrested his head of security, as well as eight other henchmen.
By the time of the predawn raid on the Mazatlan condo on February 22, El Chapo no longer had a squad of mercenaries guarding him with AK-47s. He had a single bodyguard who was easily subdued by the team of 65 marines who swarmed the building. For Chapo, there was no point in putting up a fight under these circumstances. The drug lord has always been many things: ruthless, brilliant, cunning, violent. But he has never been a foolish man.
No one is certain whether El Chapo Guzman will ever extradited to the U.S. If he remains imprisoned in Mexico, we can’t help but wonder if he will once again use his wealth and influence to manipulate the Mexican prison system, turning his sentence into an extended luxury hotel stay. Right now he is in the same penitentiary that escaped from in 2001.
The impact of Chapo’s arrest on the overall drug trade and the War on Drugs is also difficult to determine. It may well be negligible. In reviewing Chapo’s career, one is struck by the symbiotic relationship between the drug cartels on one side, and the political establishment and law enforcement agencies on the other side. In a deeply twisted sense, both sides need each other. Politicians insist that laws must be maintained to keep certain drugs illegal. This results in a thriving black market drug trade, which in turn leads to increased public funding for law enforcement and prisons. Then even more politicians win elections running on a tough-on-crime/war-on-drugs platform. If either side simply gave up and quit, the other would risk losing money and power.
El Chapo’s legacy is more complicated than one might assume. No one can deny that he has been responsible for incredible violence and suffering. It is no great stretch to call him a cruel and evil man, motivated solely by greed. However, we also need to acknowledge that he has been a formidable leader in a very lucrative yet highly volatile business climate, to say the least. Luck may have played a role in El Chapo’s longevity. But he was also a skilled operator who understood the importance of structure and discipline. He possessed certain leadership skills shared by all successful CEOs. He was well-organized, with a firm grasp of logistics, and he was thoroughly engaged in all aspects of his enterprise. He knew when to make a deal, and when to resort to terror. He did not let his greed get in the way of paying huge bribes to corrupt government officials. And he had a knack for avoiding the heavily armed hit men his enemies sent out to kill him. Over and over again, he managed to dodge their bullets.
Guillermo Valdes, the former head of Mexico’s National Security and Investigation Center, who has written a book on the booming drug trade, was quoted in a recent LA Times article calling Guzman a “business genius.” Valdes explained: “I think that El Chapo is a person with a leadership capacity and a strategic vision that the other narcos don’t have, and they recognize that. He’s a very intelligent person, with a great capacity for listening. With a great ability to seduce people, as well as a large imagination … and creativity.”
In Culiacan, crowds have been demonstrating in the streets, calling for the release of El Chapo. Some consider him to be a superb businessman who has done great things for the Sinaloan economy. Others are enraptured by his mythical status. They view him as the Godfather of Sinaloa. The most appropriate final word on El Chapo will probably come from the narcocorridos — the popular Mexican folk songs dedicated to outlaw drug traffickers. Throughout his multi-decade crime spree, Chapo has had a slew of these ballads written in his honor. In the wake of his bust, songwriters have been furiously penning fresh corridos to signal the occasion. For instance, one of the hottest tunes booming out of sound systems all over northern Mexico right now (though some states have banned it from the radio airwaves) is “La Captura del Chapo” (El Chapo’s Capture).
Like it or not, El Chapo Guzman is a legend.
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