Unless you have been living in complete isolation this past weekend then you likely know that Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, also known as El Chapo, was arrested last Friday by Mexican officials. President Enrique Peña Nieto took to Twitter to announce the arrest. In addition to the arrest, Sean Penn, published an article on Rolling Stone Magazine on Saturday detailing his “interview” of Joaquín Guzmán in October of last year. I used parenthesis around the word, interview, because although Penn’s article is published as an interview, it is in fact a report on what Penn went through to go see Guzmán in hiding. The “interview” came later in the form of a video by Guzmán answering questions previously posed to him by Penn.

El Chapo is an enigma, although he is from the same region that the original Mexican drug smugglers came from, he rose through their ranks not because of familial connections but through his own audacity. Guzmán has created an illusion about what he is and the Penn angle is just another layer to Guzmán’s aura of benevolence and a product of economic hardships he has created around himself.

The truth is illusive when it comes to El Chapo and the other Mexican drug gangs because of the nature of their smuggling. They are secretive but savvy in marketing themselves. Make no mistake, the Mexican drug trafficking organizations have been marketing themselves since they emerged as small-time opium and marihuana smugglers in the 1940’s. This is the reason they have each created a mystic and self-labeled themselves with the names of the plazas they control. Most of them learned from Pablo Escobar that using the “Robin Hood” mystic gives them the support of the local population. Their marketing has enabled them to grow as worldwide illicit drug operations with the help of the United States’ foreign policy of fighting dangers to the homeland as far away as possible from US shores.

However packaged, the fact remains that the drug smugglers leave death and destruction everywhere they operate. El Chapo has used murder and violence as his ticket to drug lord stardom. Yet, even Joaquín Guzmán Loera doesn’t really comprehend what he truly is. He can’t because he is the result of the smoke-and-mirrors psyche we Mexicans perpetuate among ourselves. Guzmán is also the product of the centuries old economic activity of cultivating and smuggling drugs to US consumers that is the basis of the Sinaloa communities that empowers drug dealers like El Chapo. In other words, whole communities in the “golden triangle” know no other means of feeding their families, except drugs to US consumers. Cultivating and smuggling drugs is all they have known for generations. The Mexican government has failed to recognize this and the drug smugglers have capitalized on this phenomena. The nature of El Chapo is about an individual intent on becoming the number one smuggler of drugs in the world by the only means he understands; violence and hubris.

It is hubris that led to his third incarceration and it is violence that made him who he is. Hubris, violence and a centuries-old community perspective is the nature of El Chapo. To understand this we need to delve into Chapo’s place in the worldwide drug trafficking phenomena that delivers drugs to US consumers.

Chapo’s Rise to Power

Joaquín Guzmán Loera was born on December 25, 1954, or April 4, 1957 in La Tuna, Badiraguato, Sinaloa. There has been some discrepancy on his birthdate. Some news outlets have reported April 4, 1954 as his true date of birth. The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has issued two wanted posters for Chapo, one with the 1954 birthdate and another one with both the 1954 and 1957 birthdates. The DEA’s initial wanted poster, prior to Guzmán’s second arrest used the 1954 birthdate. Interpol has Guzmán’s birthdate as 1957. Mexican authorities have used the 1957 date on information requesting the capture of Guzmán. Based on this, it is likely that his actual date of birth has been fixed at April 4, 1957.

La Tuna, where Guzmán was born, is not a small town but rather an ejido, or a communal ranch that is a product of the Mexican Revolution. The ejido is part of Badiraguato in Sinaloa. Ejidos are lands controlled by a patrón who makes money off of the campesinos that toil the land under the patron’s patronage. The Mexican Revolution attempted to rid the country of campesinos toiling for bosses but instead replaced one form of subjugated peasants with another, albeit one not so draconian.

Sinaloa, the state where Guzmán was born, is part of the Triángulo Dorado, or the Golden Triangle made up of the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa that is at the center of the narcotics cultivation in Mexico. Sinaloa is the state from where the three founding members of Mexico’s original drug cartel, the Guadalajara cartel, came from. They are Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, also known as “Don Neto” and his two underlings, Rafael Caro Quintero and Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo. Click here to view an infographic showing the evolution of the Mexican drug gangs.

Guzmán is believed to be one of six children. His father previously told authorities that he was a cattle rancher, but in reality he smuggled drugs, the single most important commodity in the economy from which he hails. According to Sean Penn’s article, Guzmán states that he started to smuggle drugs at the age of fifteen. Other first-source materials have shown that Guzmán had started in the drug trade in his teens.

The rise of Joaquín Guzmán Loera through the Mexican drug trafficking organizations has been very bloody. Guzmán’s criminal activities began in the 1970’s. This is shortly before the Mexican smugglers started to piggyback Colombian cocaine on Mexican heroin, opium (mota) and marihuana loads into the United States.

Guzmán eventually partnered up with Héctor Luis Palma Salazar “El Güero Palma,” a drug dealer working for Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, “El Neto.” Guzmán later came to attention of Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo in the 1980’s and as a result started working directly for him. By the early 1990’s, the death of Pablo Escobar, eventually led to the demise of the Colombian Cali and Medellín drug cartels. The intense US pressure to eradicate the Colombian drug traffickers led to the Mexican smugglers taking over the cocaine drug trade.

The Murder of Enrique “Kiki” Camarena Salazar

In 1985, DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. On February 7, 1985, Camarena walked out of the United States Consulate in Guadalajara. He was kidnapped at gun point by two Jalisco state police working for El Neto, Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo and Rafael Caro Quintero, the heads of the Guadalajara cartel. A few weeks later, Camarena’s body was found. His kidnapping was the result of a November 7, 1984, drug raid by US and Mexican officials on a ranch in Chihuahua. The ranch was owned by Rafael Caro Quintero, in a small community named “El Búfalo”. The ranch was used by Caro Quintero to grow marihuana that was smuggled into the United States. The raid destroyed the marihuana plantation and cost the Guadalajara cartel billions in losses.

Eventually, the DEA agent, Enrique Camarena, was blamed for the raid on the marihuana plantation. As a result, Fonseca Carrillo, Félix Gallardo and Caro Quintero ordered the kidnapping of the DEA agent. The drug smugglers wanted to find out how the DEA agent was getting information on the drug smuggler’s operations. (There have been suggestions that the CIA was involved and I will have more on this on a subsequent post)

After the DEA agent’s body had been discovered, the United States launched an all assault against the three drug traffickers. First, Fonseca Carrillo and Caro Quintero were arrested and sentenced for the murder of the DEA agent in 1989. Soon after, the last Guadalajara leader, Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo was also arrested and convicted. The three drug capos later called a meeting at the jail and divided their drug empire into three territories among themselves. They tasked their respective underlings to safeguard their smuggling operations.

Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the nephew of Don Neto Fonseca Carrillo, was put in charge of the Chihuahua area. His operatin became known as the Juárez cartel. Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo retained the territory along the Pacific Ocean. His drug gang came to be known as the Tijuana cartel.

The Sinaloa cartel was tasked to Héctor Luis PalmaEl Güero Palma,” Ismael Zambada García and Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, El Chapo Guzmán.

This division of the plazas is the genesis for the Mexican drug trafficking organizations that have been on the news recently and were the target of Felipe Calderón’s war on the drug gangs. The demise of the Cali and Medellín cartels in Colombia allowed the Mexican drug mule gangs to dominate the drug market into the United States. In addition to the original heroin, opium and marihuana smuggling operations, the Mexicans took over the cocaine and methamphetamine markets into the United States.

As the drug gangs increased their operations, Guzmán continued to rise through the drug underworld by brutality, innovating smuggling through tunnels on the US-Mexico border and by strategically weakening the rival gangs. He colluded with government officials, both Mexican and US, by providing intelligence about his rivals that led to their arrests, deaths or incarceration. When collusion did not work, El Chapo Guzmán went to war against his rivals.

Joaquín Guzmán was on a mission to become the only one who controlled the entire illicit drug market. He frequently aligned himself with other drug factions in order to weaken the others, until he tired of his former allies and set out to destroy them as well.

The Case of the Murder of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo

On May 24, 1993, Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo was killed in a shootout outside of the Guadalajara airport. A US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) cable dated October 16, 1993 (formerly marked secret) lays it all out.

El Chapo Guzmán attempted to take control of the Tijuana cartel from the Arellano Félix brothers. As a result, the Arellano-Félix brothers ordered the assassination of El Chapo Guzman. The Tijuana hitmen had received intelligence that El Chapo would be at the Guadalajara airport on May 24, 1993. Mistakenly identifying the cardinal’s car as Chapo’s car they killed the cardinal. As a result of the outrage over the cardinal’s murder, Mexico launched a full-scale search for the arrest of Joaquín Guzmán.

Chapo’s First Arrest

On June 9, 1993, Joaquín Guzmán Loera was arrested in Guatemala under a Mexican warrant charging him with murder and drug trafficking. He was in Guatemala while concluding a large-scale cocaine deal on El Salvador. Guzmán was sentenced to 20 years in prison. On January 19, 2001, Guzmán escaped the Jalisco prison where he was incarcerated. He escaped by hiding in a laundry cart as I was taken out of the jail.

During his almost 13 years on the run, Guzmán assumed full control of the Sinaloa cartel and dramatically increased his drug smuggling operations into the United States. In 2009, Forbe’s magazine listed Guzmán as one of the richest men in the world. He was listed as 107th on the list.

Chapo’s Second Arrest

On February 22, 2014, Joaquín Guzmán was again arrested. This time he was apprehended in Mazatlán, Sinaloa. He was tracked via sophisticated telecommunications tracking equipment that tracked one of Guzmán’s cellular telephones. US officials provided intelligence and technology to help locate Guzmán. He again escaped on July 11, 2015, about 17 months after he was arrested.

Guzmán escaped through an elaborate tunnel built under the Altipano federal maximum security prison. The tunnel has been estimated to have cost about $5 million. The Sean Penn interview purports to show that Guzmán paid to have engineers go through an extensive three months of training in Germany just to deal with the water table around the jail. In addition to the elaborate tunnel, Guzmán had two pilots and two Cessna aircraft waiting for him at San Juan del Rio, Querétaro. From there, Guzmán boarded one of the Cessna’s and flew to one of his strongholds in Sinaloa.

The Latest Arrest

Last Friday, January 8, 2015, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, also known as El Chapo Guzman, was arrested by Mexican marines in Los Mochis. Early reports indicate that his latest arrest was the result of the use of sophisticated tracking equipment tracking his cellphone use. According to CNN, Mexican officials became aware that El Chapo Guzmán was trying to get a movie made about him. Mexican officials started tracking the leads that included individuals related to the movie industry.

The Sean Penn Interview

On Saturday, January 9, 2016, Rolling Stone Magazine published an article by Sean Penn ostensibly as an interview of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. The actual interview of Chapo was a video recording provided to Penn of Chapo answering several questions posed by Penn to him previously. The accompanying video is an excerpt of a longer one. Penn, in the article he penned, acknowledges that the drug kingpin did not answer all of the questions that he posed to him.

It is also important to note that the magazine gave Guzmán the right to approve the article before it was published. The magazine has stated that no changes were required by the drug runner.

Yesterday, news media reports seem to indicate that it was Sean Penn’s meeting with El Chapo in October 2015 that led Mexican officials to almost capture the drug runner earlier in the year. Penn, wrote about the October raid that almost captured Guzmán in his article. Mexican officials have so far supported the notion that it was Penn’s actions that may have led to the most recent capture of Guzmán.

The Conspiracy Theory

Typically the conspiracy theories are all over the place. Most of them center on the notion that Chapo allowed himself to be captured, or that he had been captured previously and kept hidden, in order to bolster up Enrique Peña’s presidency. The Peso is in freefall and the presidency is under intense pressure from the Mexican population. In addition, the Mexican president has embarked on economic reforms that are very unpopular in Mexico.

The same types of conspiracy theories emerged about Felipe Calderón supposedly propping up El Chapo through disseminating his rivals in the drug business.

The smoke and mirrors nature of Mexicans not only supports these types of conspiracies but it also allows them to develop through the population.

Extradition to the United States

Joaquín Guzmán fears one thing over everything else and that is incarceration in the United States. This is true of all drug lords and El Chapo is no exception. It is why he has escaped twice from Mexican jails.

The fear of incarceration in the United States is based on the decline of their drug empires. The drug lords strive to corner the market in drug smuggling into the United States. They grow through control, intimidation and violence. Incarceration in the United States severely limits their operational control of the drug empires they have created and isolates them from the glory they strive for.

Today, Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera is sitting in jail fearing only one thing and that is extradition to the United States.

Chapo Guzmán has various indictments pending against him in the United States. In 1996, the Southern District of California issued an indictment against Guzmán charging him with cocaine smuggling. On November 14, 2008, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, along with others, was indicted in the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division on various charges related to drug trafficking. In El Paso, Texas, in the Western District, on April 11, 2012, another indictment on various drug charges was issued against Guzmán and other confederates. Another indictment was issued on September 25, 2014, a superseding indictment, replacing one from 2009, was issued for Guzmán in the Eastern District of New York.

On June 25, 2015, about 16 days before Guzmán’s latest escape, the California courts issued a formal extradition request to Mexican authorities for Guzmán based on the 1996 indictment.

The fear of extradition to the United States was the impetus for Guzmán’s first escape from prison. Although it took months to prepare for his second escape, Guzmán escaped a few days after the US government issued an extradition request to Mexican officials.

Both the Cali and Medellín leaderships were extremely afraid of extradition to the United States. Pablo Acosta made arrangements with Colombian authorities to build a jail and pay for his own incarceration as long as they agreed not to extradite him. Escobar even ran for political office in order to benefit from Colombia’s law against prosecuting sitting government officials.

The Mexican government has taken the prideful approach that to extradite Guzmán to the United States prior to Guzmán paying for his crimes in Mexico would indicate that Mexico is unprepared to keep Guzmán in jail. Guzmán’s escape last year proves the point.

Recent indications are that the Mexican government is open to extraditing Joaquín Guzmán to be prosecuted in the United States. If Mexico follows through it would signify the end of the Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera’s era of drug trafficking. Although there are those that suggest that Ivan Guzmán, El Chapo’s oldest son, is poised to take over El Chapo’s leadership of the Sinaloa cartel, this is unlikely as history has demonstrated.

Without El Chapo Guzmán, the Sinaloa cartel will disintegrate into smaller drug factions very similar to what happened in Colombia after the era of the Cali and Medellín cartels. El Chapo Guzmán built the Sinaloa cartel into the largest drug trafficking operation in the world. He did because it is in his nature. Guzmán’s guile was driven by the nature that was imparted to him by his surroundings as a child. Guzmán rise was facilitated via other events that opened up opportunities for him to take advantage of. He masterfully used US and Mexican officials to destroy his rivals with money and strategy imparted to him by the demise of the Colombian cartels.

It was a different generation at the time and one unlikely to be repeated again. This will not end the Mexican drug trafficking organizations but it will severely limit their ability to continue usurping the Mexican authorities. The faster that El Chapo is extradited t othe United States the sooner this era can be closed.

It is in Chapo’s nature to fear extradition to the United States and it is his own hubris that has ensured that we now have the opportunity to see him sent to the US.

Martin Paredes

Martín Paredes is a Mexican immigrant who built his business on the U.S.-Mexican border. As an immigrant, Martín brings the perspective of someone who sees México as a native through the experience...

One reply on “The Nature of El Chapo Guzman”

  1. You forgot to mention that Gallardo and Caro Quintero were released in the last couple of years due to “technical errors” with their prosecution. You wonder if Chapo’s arrest has anything to do with their releases. Maybe the old bosses, who had deeper political connections with the PRI, are ready to take over again.

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