The story goes something like this:
The Las Palmas Restaurant, in Culiacán, in the Sinaloa region of Mexico, is a small, family establishment, not the sort of place where people find high rollers or big fish. One night, in early November 2005, the customers inside Las Palmas were enjoying a quiet, peaceful evening when a group of men carrying AK-47’s came through the doors.
All talking ceased. One of the men called the room to order. Not an eye in the room was fixed elsewhere as he spoke.
“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 … Do not worry … nothing will happen. Continue eating.”
A few of the armed men then went around the room and collected all the mobile phones. A moment later, a casually dressed man, around 5’6, with dark hair and an easy, friendly, round face, strolled amiably into the restaurant and began walking around the tables, shaking hands with everyone, introducing himself.
He needn’t have bothered. Everyone there knew his name. Everyone in Mexico did. In fact, on the night he and his entourage descended on La Palmas it was only Osama Bin Laden and a cadre of his own followers who were keeping him from the place that would eventually be his; the top spot on the FBI Most Wanted List, and the title of World’s Most Wanted Man.
He was Joaquín Guzmán Loera, “El Chapo”, the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, and a fugitive from justice in Mexico, the United States and across the world since he’d escaped from prison four years before. He was on every watch list of every law enforcement agency everywhere in the world, and that night he walked into Las Palmas, in his home city, and had a nice meal. Before he left, he paid the cheques for everyone in the restaurant.
It was at least the second time that year he’d gone for a night on the town, in full view of the public, and walked away from it without a care in the world. Sinaloa was not just his home, it was his personal fiefdom. There, he was, and still is, the most powerful man for thousands of miles. The Mexican government has him in custody, after arresting him at a beachfront mansion in Mazatlán on 22 February 2014, and another international manhunt last year – he is a serial jailbreaker – but few are in any doubt about the enormous influence he still wields.
Outside of the international terrorist community, no man has been sought by so many of the world’s law enforcement agencies save, perhaps, for Pablo Escobar, the man who formed the Medellin drug cartel and who’s re-ordering of the cocaine supply from Colombia helped to build the Sinaloa cartel into, first, a major partner in the business and then, ultimately, into a global crime syndicate in its own right. At the same time, in a malefic echo of Escobar’s reign, the cartel eventually emerged as a potent challenge to the Mexican state.
In many respects, El Chapo eclipsed Escobar, and when it came to violence, the Mexicans rewrote the rule book, and made the legendary Colombians look tame by comparison.
Much of his early life is shrouded in mystery and doubt, including the day on which he was born. There are two mooted dates, 4 April 1957 and 25 December 1954. It barely matters, because he, like Escobar before him, was born in an impoverished town, in an impoverished country, radically divided between the haves and the have-nots.
Like his Colombian counterpart, he got involved in petty crimes at first; growing marijuana with his father and then branching out to plant his own fields. He finally departed his birthplace to hook up with his uncle, and it was under his flag that he established himself in organised crime.
Fortunately for Guzman, and unfortunately for the rest of Mexico, his uncle was building his own legendary reputation at the time. Pedro Avilés Pérez was already a “name” in the Mexican drug business, and history remembers him as the first smuggler to organise extensive drug flights into the United States. He had all the right connections, and it wasn’t long before Guzman was cultivating those for himself, one eye ever on the future.
He was inducted into the Guadalajara Cartel, and he worked alongside its leaders, including Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo. Gallardo was the man who gave the modern Mexican cartels their shapes, and their deadly nature.
When the Cartel’s co-founders, Rafael Caro Quintero and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, were arrested in 1987 he avoided their fate and moved his family to Guadalajara City, and convened a meeting of the country’s upcoming drug bosses. One of them was Guzman. Excluded from the meeting was a fellow drug trafficker from Sinaloa, Héctor Luis Palma Salazar. He and Guzman would hook up later, with enormous, and deadly, consequences.
Gallardo split the country into various regions, and he “gave” those territories to the men he had chosen in advance; Tijuana went to his nephews, the Arellano Felix brothers. The Ciudad Juárez Cartel went to the Carrillo Fuentes family, headed by Amado Carrillo, another of his nephews. Miguel Caro Quintero took over Sonora, whilst the Matamoros/Tamaulipas corridor became the property of the Gulf Cartel headed up by Juan García Abrego.
Guzmán and one of his business partners, Ismael Zambada García, took over the Pacific coast operation, which became the Sinaloa organisation.
The seeds were already sown for the drug wars to come, wars in which Guzman and his Sinaloa Cartel would be the prime movers, and eventual winners.
When Gallardo was arrested, his nephews in the Tijuana Cartel moved quickly, in an effort to make sure they held the power. They believed Guzman had betrayed them by setting up a co-operative with Héctor Luis Palma Salazar, the drug lord who had been exiled from the top ranks in Guadalajara after a deal had gone bad.
Guzman’s first instinct appears to have been to sort things out, because he dispatched one of his key associates, Armando López, to negotiate with them. Instead of doing so, they murdered Lopez. They ordered that his family be killed too, to prevent them from one day taking revenge.
Then, in a plan as bizarre as it was appalling, they turned one of Palma’s other associates, Enrique Rafael Clavel Moreno, to wreak havoc within the family. Clavel was a drug smuggler from Venezuela and a notorious playboy. He had dated Palma’s sister, and he and Palma had worked together on a number of separate operations.
Working, in secret, with the Tijuana faction, Clavel seduced Palma’s wife and convinced her to embezzle money from his accounts. She did so, moving $7 million from a bank in San Diego. She took her children and fled to Venezuela with them, to be with her new man. When he had the money, Clavel cut off her head and sent it to Palma in a box. A fortnight later, he murdered the children, aged 4 and 5 too, throwing them off a bridge.
Palma’s response was equally brutal, and it ordered the shape of things to come. He sent hit-men after Clavel whilst he was in prison, and he murdered his three children. Shortly after this, Palma formalised his alliance with Guzman when he joined the Sinaloa Cartel.
It was then the Arellano Félix brothers turned the guns on Guzman himself. In 1992, Calle Treinta, a San Diego based gang who were working alongside the cartel, captured six of his men in Tijuana, tortured them and shot them dead. Their bodies were dumped on the outskirts of the city, in a clear warning to Guzman and his people to stay out. Not long afterwards, they planted a car bomb outside one of his apartments in Culiacán. Retaliation was certain.
On 3 September that year, Guzman’s men killed nine people including Gallardo’s lawyers, in a massacre which outraged the country and saw the government take its first drastic measures to cut down the growing monster in Sinaloa. The Attorney General organised an investigation, involving a special unit, but it was quickly derailed when it was discovered that Guzman had bought off several of its top police officers, with a $10 million bribe.
In November 1992, the Tijuana organisation went after Guzman himself when four of its soldiers armed with AK-47’s opened fire on his convoy as it went through Guadalajara. He left the city shortly afterwards, and he and Palma retaliated in spectacular fashion when they got a tip that the Arellano Félix brothers were at the Christine Nightclub in Vallarta, Jalisco.
They sent a small army of their men there, dressed as police officers, and they opened fire on a group of men they thought included their targets. The men were Tijuana Cartel bodyguards, and they returned fire. The shootout lasted eight minutes. Over 1000 rounds were fired, and six people died. The two main targets, Ramón and Francisco Javier Arellano Félix, were not amongst them. They were in a bathroom at the time and escaped out a window.
The war lasted six more months, and during that time there was bloodshed all across the region, in Baja California, Sonora, Sinaloa, Jalisco, Guerrero, Michoacán, Durango and Oaxaca.
On 24 May 1993, Francisco Javier Arellano Félix was standing in line at the Guadalajara International Airport, preparing to board a flight to Tijuana, when his informants told him that Guzman was at the airport too, in a parking lot, sitting in a white Mercury Grand Marquis car. Francisco Javier called his people, and 20 of his gunmen arrived in jeeps a short time later. They found the car, leapt from their vehicles, and blazed away.
Guzman was not in the car; he was in another vehicle, a green Buick sedan, parked a short distance away. He heard the gunshots and fled. He was lucky. The inhabitants of the white Mercury were not, and neither was the Tijuana Cartel. Inside the white car was the Cardinal and Archbishop of Guadalajara, Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo. He, his chauffeur and five others died in the attack.
The murder of this much loved, hugely admired holy man echoed around the world. Guzman knew the backlash would be fearsome, and it was. The Mexican government erupted in fury, and this hitherto unknown gangster saw his face appearing in newspapers and on TV. He fled to Mexico City, where he met with two key associates to arrange their takeover of the Sinaloa Cartel, and to assure they would run everything in his name, and on his okay.
To purchase this loyalty, and to assure the safety of his family, he handed these men vast sums of money. It is instructive to note that, at this point, he was not yet at the height of his powers, or his wealth, yet he had the wherewithal to give these men $200 million each.
Then, using a false passport in the name of Jorge Ramos Pérez, he was able to escape across the border to Guatemala. From there he planned to move himself, his girlfriend and an army of his bodyguards to El Salvador. To help with this, he bribed a Guatemalan army officer with $1.2 million. Unbeknownst to him, however, the officer was an infiltrated informer, who turned his position over to Mexican and Guatemalan law enforcement.
They sprung on 9 June 1993. They arrested El Chapo at a hotel, and two days later he was flown across the border in a military aircraft. He was taken from the airbase in Toluca to Altiplano, the Federal Social Readaptation Center No. 1, a maximum security prison in the State of Mexico. He was sentenced to 20 years, and in 1995 he was moved to Puente Grande, otherwise known as the Federal Social Readaptation Center No. 2, where he faced further charges, including playing a role in the murder of the Archbishop.
On 23 June 1995 Palma was arrested, and extradited to the United States. At that point, Guzman assumed full control of the Sinaloa Cartel, and he proceeded, from his jail cell, to restructure its operations. He put his brother in charge on the outside, and over the next few years oversaw its transformation into one of the world’s foremost criminal organisations.
Whilst he was inside, he lived as Pablo Escobar had at La Cathedral, the prison he had commissioned himself to house he and his men in Colombia. People came to see Guzman with suitcases filled with money, and with this cash he bought himself a comfortable life inside, and a virtual license to do whatever he wished within its walls.
Whilst he was inside he was indicted on numerous charges by a San Diego court, which wanted him extradited to the United States. When Mexican authorities agreed, Guzman knew he had a limited window in which to act. On 19 January 2001, he escaped from the prison, assisted by numerous prison employees including a guard, Francisco Camberos Rivera, who personally let him out of his cell and provided a laundry truck to hide him in.
78 people have been implicated in helping him make it happen, including prison officials and police officers. Not only did a maintenance worker personally push the truck, with Guzman in it, outside the gates and then drive him away from the scene, but the local police had been paid off to make sure he had a 24 hour head start in getting clean away.
The entire operation is said to have cost him a mere $2.5 million. It was a nominal sum for a man who had paid his associates nearly two hundred times that before going inside and who was, by then, sitting on a fortune estimated at $1 billion.
His escape fired the deadliest conflict between organised crime syndicates that the world has ever seen, the Mexican Drug Wars that have plunged the entire country into chaos ever since.
The areas which sparked the conflict were the Ciudad Juárez crossing points, the key drug lines from Mexico into the United States. Guzman had coveted them for many years, but they were under the control of the Carrillo Fuentes family, who ran the mighty Juarez Cartel. Guzman was determined to take them over, but he bided his time.
In 2004, he convened a meeting with his key lieutenants, his co-founder of the Sinaloa Cartel Ismael Zambada García, the former police officer turned drug trafficker Juan José Esparragoza Moreno and a third senior cartel member Arturo Beltrán Leyva. Guzman proposed murdering the head of the Juarez Cartel, Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, and the others agreed. The order was given.
On 11 September that year, Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes and his family were visiting a shopping mall in Culiacán. They had a police escort with them. It didn’t matter. As they were leaving they were ambushed by armed gunmen from Los Negros, then the Sinaloa Cartel’s military arm. Rodolfo, his wife and their two small children were killed in the attack. It achieved its goal, loosening the Juarez Cartel’s grip on the pipeline, but it had staggering consequences.
The war raged for over a year and the dead included Guzman’s brother, who the Juarez Cartel had murdered whilst he was in prison.
Yet Guzman and Sinaloa had other things brewing at the time. They had formed Los Negros as a response to the increasing power of the country’s oldest criminal syndicate, the Gulf Cartel. In 2004, violence erupted between them, and in a rare reversal, the Sinaloa organisation was pushed back from the border city of Nuevo Laredo by the Gulf Cartel and its own armed forces, mercenaries hired from within Mexico’s military, and known as Los Zetas.
The conflict between the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, a war Guzman played a terrible role in launching, unleashed mayhem on Mexico. By November 2006 every one of the old alliances which had kept the peace had been broken and the Mexican traffickers were killing each other, and civilians, with carefree abandon. On 25 November, Los Zetas murdered a popular Mexican musician, Valentín Elizalde, his manager and his driver, because he’d sang songs mocking them. There was outrage across a country that ought to have been numbed to the killing.
Less than a week later, on 1 December, a new President, Felipe Calderón, was sworn in and he immediately increased the salaries of Mexico’s police and armed forces, in an obvious preparatory move. He launched Operation Michoacán ten days after taking office, targeting the Michoacán Cartel, who were allied to the men running the organisation in the Gulf.
Guzman took advantage as the state moved in on his rivals. Before long, new alliances were springing up and others were collapsing, as Mexico’s criminal fraternity began re-aligning on the back of a period of bloodletting the likes of which has never been seen outside of an actual warzone. The casualty figures are staggering, and draw disbelief.
In 2007, the first full year of the Mexican Drug War, 2477 people were murdered, many of them by direct order of Guzman and his Sinaloa organisation. In 2008 the death toll rose to 6,290, partly as a result of a fracture within the Sinaloa Cartel itself, when Arturo Beltrán Leyva and his brothers broke away from the organisation, taking Los Negros with them, because they believed Guzman had traded in some of their top members to the Mexican drug police. They joined up with the Gulf Cartel, and immediately went after their former partner.
Another front was launched in the spiralling war, as former friends ordered murders against each other and former enemies came together in a common cause, including the Juarez and Sinaloa organisations. Shortly afterwards, Los Zetas broke away from the Gulf Cartel and formed an alliance with Arturo Beltrán Leyva and his people, and created the separate power of the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel. By now parts of Mexico were in complete anarchy, ruled by the drug bosses, who were perennially at war with each other. El Chapo had unleashed Hell.
Hell was visited on El Chapo himself when the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel sent a team of more than a dozen armed men after his 22 year old son, Édgar Guzmán Lopez, on 8 May 2008. They found him in a shopping mall carpark, in Culiacán, and ambushed him using automatic weapons and grenade launchers. His death sparked a furious, vicious retaliation. Hundreds, including police and civilians, died in the months that followed, as atrocity was piled on atrocity.
The Beltrán-Leyva Cartel was a short lived problem for El Chapo. They collapsed in the space of just two years, partly due to a wave of arrests of key leaders and partly due to internal issues caused by their propensity for double-dealing. Still, the violence continued to rage, with the Sinaloa Cartel growing stronger as time wore on.
Through it all, El Chapo lived the life of a free man, although he was, by now, one of the most wanted men on the face of the Earth. On 18 April 2009, Roman Catholic Archbishop Héctor González of Durango told the press that “Guzman is living nearby and everyone knows it except the authorities, who just don’t happen to see him for some reason.”
Four days after that, two undercover police officers were found dead. They’d been tortured and shot, and there was a message nearby that read “Neither the government nor the priests can handle ‘El Chapo’.” It was a potent warning, and one that couldn’t be ignored.
By this time, he was being hunted by more than just the Mexicans. His cartel was the largest criminal organisation in the world, and they exported more cocaine and heroin into the United States than any other syndicate, including their one time bosses in Colombia. Furthermore, his own fame was enormous, and his continuing freedom was a slap in the face to the political class of five continents. Guzman had made the Forbes “Most Powerful People in the World” list every year since 2009, despite being a wanted man.
Such was the power of the Sinaloa Cartel that there have been persistent allegations that the government of President Felipe Calderón was deliberately targeting its assets and operations against Guzman’s rivals, to enhance his power. These allegations appear to be supported by the arrests of the Beltrán-Leyva bosses, and those from the Gulf Cartel amongst others.
Yet, Calderón’s people had numerous successes against the Sinaloa organisation too, and by the time of Guzman’s arrest earlier this year a number of his key lieutenants were already dead or languishing in jail as a result of the Mexican police and military operations against them. He left office in 2012, but by then his successes had far outweighed the allegations.
Guzman stayed in front of the authorities by being cautious. His trip to Las Palmas Restaurant, in 2005, had come before the Mexican Drug War and the government crackdown. At that time he was more at risk from his fellow cartel bosses than from the judicial authorities. When that war exploded the following year Guzman went to ground.
By late 2013, he was becoming restless. The geo-political makeup of the Mexican drug wars had radically shifted again. New alliances had sprung up, new conflicts had erupted, and Guzman had been on the run for over a decade. By early 2014 he’d, once again, begun to take chances, going into Culiacán and wandering around the beach town of Mazatlán, where he was hiding out.
A week before his capture, he attended a family reunion in Sinaloa. Police were tipped off as to his presence, and they arrived en masse, but battering rams were unable to break through the steel reinforced door of the house he was in, and he and his long-time ally Ismael Zambada García were able to escape through a secret tunnel network.
On the morning of 22 February this year, Mexican naval officers, local police, US Marshalls and the DEA raided a beachfront hotel in Mazatlán, Sinaloa. They struck early in the morning at around 06:30, crashing into his fourth floor room after subduing his bodyguards elsewhere in the hotel. They found him lying on his bed, beside his wife. There was an automatic rifle nearby, but although El Chapo resisted their efforts to arrest him, he did not reach for the gun, probably realising they’d have cut him down without hesitation.
His arrest resulted in an outpouring of relief, and delight, across Central America and in the halls of the Justice Department in Washington DC. Politicians lined up to pay tribute to those who’d aided in his capture, whilst recognising the terrible toll he and his organisation had taken on Mexico and the wider world.
No-one, anywhere, was under any illusions about it being over yet, and so it proved. In 2015 he was to mount another audacious escape and lead the authorities on another merry dance across the continent before he was recaptured in January 2016. He was found to be plotting another escape in November last year.
The war he played a part in launching was, and is, still raging across the shattered land of his birth. Since it began, an estimated 140,000 people have been murdered, on all the sides of the conflict. The number is numbing, almost unbelievable. In the course of the war, parts of Mexico have been abandoned to the cartels, and entire communities turned into ghost towns because of the battles waged in their streets.
In 2011, when Osama Bin Laden died, Guzman was officially the Most Wanted Man in the World, at the very apex of his power, wealth and influence.
Now he is a prisoner, albeit one who still wields enormous power. The range of that power can be most easily measured by the Mexican government’s reluctance this far simply to extradite him to the United States, amidst a firestorm of protest from the American side.
The Mexicans, ever mindful of his original escape and the motivation behind it, as well as the similarities between El Chapo and Pablo Escobar, who unleashed his own war against his native government when they granted a similar request, have perhaps weighed the consequences of agreeing to such a thing and decided not to.
Few can blame them. El Chapo means “shorty”, but he still casts a very large shadow.
This article was originally posted in Goodfellas & Faces magazine.