The Drug Lord Who Got Away : Mexican Capo Unleashes Mayhem on U.S. Border; The Making of a Legend

DAVID LUHNOW and JOSE DE CORDOBA — The Wall Street Journal

Copyright The Wall Street Journal
(ed.’s note: A phenomenal read, all the way to the end.)
BADIRAGUATO, Mexico — As a child, Joaquín Guzm√°n Loera was so poor that he sold oranges to scrape together money for a meal. Since then, the 52-year-old has built a business empire and a personal fortune currently tied for number 701 on Forbes magazine’s list of global titans.
He also has another ranking: Mexico’s most wanted man.
Mr. Guzm√°n is the informal CEO of one of the world’s biggest drug-trafficking organizations, the so-called Sinaloa cartel, named for its home state of Sinaloa. It smuggles a big part of the marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines that end up on American streets, and it has links to organized crime in 23 countries, according to Mexican and U.S. officials.
Mr. Guzm√°n’s rivalries and turf wars have contributed to a drug-war death toll that stands at 11,000 in the past two and a half years, an average of 366 murders per month. His feuds stretch back more than two decades, leaving a trail of tombstones that act as milestones of the narcotics business south of the border.
Part Al Capone and part Jesse James, Mr. Guzm√°n has become a narco folk hero. He is feted on YouTube videos and by musicians who pen ballads, known as corridos, in his honor. He is known throughout Mexico simply as “El Chapo,” Mexican slang for a short and stocky man.
Adding to his mystique, “El Chapo” has survived several assassination attempts by rival gangs, including a 1993 attack that killed a Roman Catholic cardinal. He also pulled off the greatest escape in modern Mexico: from a maximum security prison in 2001 — in a laundry cart. Ever since, he has stayed a step ahead of Mexican and U.S. officials in a game of cat and mouse that is now in its ninth year.
Each year that Mexico is unable to catch “El Chapo” his legend grows — a direct challenge to the authority of the Mexican state. Last year, he flouted authorities by hosting a party, complete with cases of whiskey and a norteño band, in a remote Mexican village to watch his 18-year-old girlfriend, Emma Coronel, win a local beauty contest. Months later, he married her.
With each year, too, questions grow about why Mexico, together with help from the U.S., can’t find him — despite a $5 million bounty offered by Washington (tips can be sent to and a $2 million reward from the Mexican government.
U.S. and Mexican officials say Mr. Guzm√°n has used money and cruelty to build a well-disciplined organization that protects him. He is believed to be hiding in the towering Sierra Madre mountains that run through Sinaloa and bordering states, making the task of finding him a bit like finding Osama bin Laden in the forbidding mountains of Pakistan. Another factor: Mr. Guzm√°n is believed to have bribed enough Mexican law-enforcement and army officials to get timely tip-offs that allow him to avoid capture.
Culiacan, Sinoloa is the unofficial capital of Mexico’s drug-trafficking business. Given the shortened lifespan for drug traffickers, shrines and mausoleums honoring fallen narcos have become an integral part of the city’s landscape. David Luhnow and Jose de Cordoba reports from Mexico.
On at least three occasions during the past three years, Mexican security agencies have gotten leads on Mr. Guzm√°n, only to find he had vanished by the time they turned up, according to a U.S. official. Part of the problem is logistics. In the mountains, the capo’s people can spot a caravan of military vehicles coming from miles away, giving him time to flee on anything from a helicopter to horseback.
Over the past few years, Mr. Guzm√°n has regularly visited a ranch in the remote mountains of Chihuahua state to check on his marijuana crop, according to a 2008 Mexican intelligence document reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The ranch, owned by Mr. Guzm√°n’s associates, has an airstrip and an underground tunnel for access. “On at least three visits, he has arrived with a caravan of at least six vehicles, under the protection of some authorities in the Mexican army,” the document says.
Mexico’s Defense Ministry said in an email that it was unaware of the allegations, but added that “various criminal organizations have used army clothing and vehicles as a cover for their activities.”
In April, the archbishop in Durango, a state known for its scorpions, outlaws and rugged wilderness, declared that Mr. Guzm√°n was living there. “Just up the road from [the town of] Guanaceví, that’s where he lives, but, well, we all seem to know this except for the authorities,” Archbishop Héctor Gonzalez Martinez told local reporters.
Four days later, the bullet-riddled bodies of two army lieutenants turned up near Guanaceví in the trunk of a car, blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs. Next to the dead men was a note that read: “Neither the government nor the priests can handle ‘El Chapo.'”
Purported sightings of Mr. Guzm√°n are common. In at least three Mexican cities, including Culiac√°n, Sinaloa’s capital, people have reported seeing the capo turn up to eat at a local restaurant. They say he was preceded by bodyguards who confiscated diners’ cell phones and didn’t allow anyone to leave. As repayment for the patrons’ brief loss of liberty, Mr. Guzm√°n was said to have paid everyone’s tab.
An owner of one of the restaurants denies any such thing happened. But a Mexican intelligence report says that at least one of the restaurant stories is believed to be true.
Mexican officials say they don’t want to get obsessed with capturing Mr. Guzm√°n at the expense of winning the broader war on drugs. “In the past, the strategy was just to capture top guys and ignore the operational guys. Now we are trying to weaken the structure of the cartels,” says Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora.
This week alone, Mexican troops arrested José Parra, a leading gunman for the Sinaloa cartel who police say was helping Mr. Guzm√°n’s outfit wage war against the Tijuana cartel, a fight that claimed 749 lives last year. And in Durango, soldiers said they killed three of Mr. Guzman’s gunmen, including the alleged head of his organization in that city, and captured two others.
A U.S. official agrees that the capture of Mr. Guzm√°n himself would do little to slow the illegal drug market, but said it would be a major coup. “Catching him would be like the capture of Saddam Hussein after the Iraq war,” says the U.S. official. “His capture didn’t stop the insurgency, but it was a huge victory.”
Some U.S. officials believe Mexico will catch Mr. Guzm√°n soon. They say his status as Mexico’s most wanted man forces him to be constantly on the move, making it harder to conduct day-to-day business. They say he has aged rapidly in appearance, and draw parallels to the late Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, who was finally killed after years on the lam.
“Chapo Guzm√°n is a dead man walking, and he knows it,” says Michael Braun, who retired eight months ago as the head of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “No one in his business lives to old age, or to enjoy his grandchildren.”
But Mr. Guzm√°n has been underestimated before. In 2005, then Mexican Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca said Mr. Guzm√°n was “no longer operating” in the drug business. In early 2007, the current attorney general, Mr. Medina Mora, wrote off Mr. Guzm√°n as a has-been in the drug business.
From left, Mr. Guzman’s brother Arturo “The Chicken” Guzm√°n was murdered in prison by a rival drug cartel; longtime associate Héctor “El Guero” Palma was captured in 1995 and sent to prison in the U.S.; Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel is now considered Mr. Guzman’s top associate in the cartel.
(Photos, left to right: Reuters, Associated Press, Zuma Press)
“I don’t care where he is,” he told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. “He’s like a washed-up soccer star.”
Since then, Mr. Guzm√°n has left little doubt he’s a central figure in the drug war. Experts say it was his gang’s push into northern Chihuahua state to try to wrest control of lucrative smuggling routes from rival gangs that has turned the place into a war zone. Some 3,300 people have been killed in the past 15 months, according to press reports. A separate feud between Mr. Guzm√°n and a former associate, Arturo Beltr√°n Leyva, led to a killing spree in Sinaloa that claimed more than 600 lives. Among the victims of the feud: Mr. Guzm√°n’s 22-year-old son, Édgar, killed in a mall parking lot outside a Bridgestone tire-repair center in Culiac√°n.
Today, experts say Mr. Guzm√°n’s group is battling other cartels in states as diverse as Chihuahua, Durango, Baja California, Guerrero, Sonora, Michoacan, and Quintana Roo.
From left, brothers Benjamin, Francisco and Ramón Arellano Félix feuded over territory with Mr. Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel for nearby two decades. They initially went to war to wrest control of the Mexicali border from Mr. Guzm√°n and Hector Palma.
In Culiac√°n, urban legends about El Chapo are daily bread. One says that a thief unwittingly robbed the capo’s niece’s car, and got his hands cut off by Mr. Guzm√°n’s thugs as a lesson. In another, a former top state official reportedly fell for a local beauty and sent her an expensive gift. The gift was returned to his office along with a note from Mr. Guzm√°n saying the girl was his. “Send her another gift and I’ll kill you,” the note said.
Separating fact from fiction is difficult. Asking Mexican officials about El Chapo usually draws blank stares. “I don’t know much about him,” says Juan Mill√°n, a former Sinaloa state governor. A local reporter who covers the drug trade for Noroeste, a leading Sinaloa newspaper, says he stays away from writing too much about the kingpin. “It isn’t worth dying for.”
According to the few people who have met him and are willing to talk publicly about it, Mr. Guzm√°n comes across as down-to-earth and intelligent, despite a third-grade education.
“He’s a simple guy, a rancher type, who talks with a country accent, but he’s very smart,” says José Antonio Ortega, a lawyer who took Mr. Guzm√°n’s deposition in prison shortly before he escaped in 2001. Scheduled to meet Mr. Guzm√°n at 10 a.m., Mr. Ortega says he was kept waiting at the prison until 10 p.m. He met the capo in a well-appointed prison cell that Mr. Guzm√°n used as his personal anteroom.
Mr. Guzm√°n apologized for the 12-hour delay, telling the lawyer that he had had a conjugal visit that day, and had then taken a nap and a shower in order to be ready to “receive [you] with all the courtesy you deserve to be received with,” Mr. Ortega recalls.
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