The rise of El Chapo
Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera was born in the rural Mexican town of Badiraguato in the state of Sinaloa. The exact date of his birth is disputed with various sources citing 25 December 1954 and others 4 April 1957.
Born into a poor family with an abusive father in the drug trade, Guzmán had been kicked out of the family home by his teenage years and forced to make his own way in life. With little employment opportunities in his hometown, Guzmán turned to selling drugs, and by the age of 15 had cultivated his own marijuana plantation. During these teenage years he acquired the nickname “El Chapo” (The Shorty) due to his 5ft 6in stature and stocky build.
It wasn’t long before he entered the world of organised crime and began working for the drug lord Héctor "El Güero" (Blondy) Palma in the late ‘70s, overseeing the movement of drugs within the Sinaloa region (northwest Mexico) and towards the U.S.-Mexico border. Ambitious and ruthless, Guzmán soon earned a reputation for violence, shooting any smuggler straight in the head if they were late with a drug delivery.
By the early ‘80s he was working for Félix “El Padrino" (The Godfather) Gallardo, the leading drug baron in Mexico at the time and head of the Guadalajara Cartel. Guzmán was put in charge of logistics, tasked with coordinating drug shipments from Colombia to Mexico.
When Gallardo was arrested in 1989 for the murder of a DEA agent, the territories controlled by the Guadalajara Cartel were divided up, allowing Guzmán and a few others to form the Sinaloa Cartel. Guzmán was now firmly on the radar of the U.S. authorities and considered one of Mexico’s most powerful drug traffickers.
Over the coming years, Guzmán took advantage of crackdowns on Columbian cartels to grow his own market share. Soon his empire was shifting multi-ton cocaine shipments from Columbia up to the United States via multiple transportation channels. Part of his success was his creativity in these transportation areas; examples included the smuggling of cocaine powder inside fire extinguishers and cans labelled ‘Chilli Peppers’.
His cartel were also involved in the production and distribution of methamphetamine, heroin, ecstasy and marijuana. It wasn’t long before the Sinaloa Cartel had operations on five continents and nearly 50 countries, making it the most powerful drug trafficking organisation in the world.
The authorities finally caught up to Guzmán in Guatemala on 9 June 1993. He was extradited to Mexico and sentenced to 20 years in a maximum-security prison on drug and murder charges.
Although behind bars, the powerful influence of El Chapo didn’t abate as he bribed guards to maintain his opulent lifestyle, have conjugal visits and even arrange business meetings allowing him to continue operating his ever-growing drug empire.
In 2001, after a ruling by the Supreme Court of Mexico made extradition between Mexico and the United States easier, Guzmán made an audacious escape. After bribing multiple guards, Guzmán was wheeled out of the prison hidden inside a dirty laundry basket. The escape allegedly cost the drug lord over $2.5 million. Over 70 guards were implicated including the warden, who is now in prison for the part he played.
With a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest announced by the U.S. government, Guzmán went on the run. He eluded law enforcement agencies for 13 years, growing the legend of El Chapo to folk hero status. Many viewed him as a Robin Hood-like figure, aided by stories of him strolling into restaurants, asking his bodyguards to remove everyone’s phones, eating his meal, then returning the phones and picking up the bill for the entire restaurant.
By the time of his next arrest in 2014, El Chapo had become a billionaire. In 2009, Forbes controversially announced him as No.701 on their list of the world’s richest people. This placed his net wealth at a staggering $1 billion. He imported more drugs into the U.S. than anyone else becoming the “leading drug trafficker of all time” according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). His rise to the top of the criminal underworld had come at a staggering cost, unleashing multiple drug wars that have taken the lives of thousands of his countrymen.
El Chapo’s luck ran out on 22 February 2014 after he was captured in a hotel in a beachfront area of Mazatlán, Sinaloa, after a large-scale multi-country operation. No shots were fired.
Mexico refused U.S. requests for Guzmán to be extradited to America, wanting him to face charges in Mexico. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto uttered words that would later come back to haunt him stating that another escape, “would be more than regrettable; it would be unforgivable for the government to not take the precautions to ensure that what happened last time would not be repeated.”
On July 11 2015, El Chapo cemented his reputation as the Houdini of criminals, as he slipped down a shaft under the shower area in his prison cell and escaped through a mile long ventilated tunnel, said to have taken over a year to construct. The tunnel led to a house under construction in a nearby town.
This time Guzmán’s freedom was shorter lived, with authorities catching up with him on 8 January 2016 in the coastal city of Los Mochis, Sinaloa. After a shootout with Mexican marines, Guzmán was taken once again into custody.
Guzmán now resides in a newer prison facility built in an unhabituated area in Juarez right on the U.S. border. This time the Mexican government has approved extradition proceedings with the United States, although Guzmán has filed an appeal to prevent this from happening.
In August 2016, Guzmán’s lawyers won an appeal to have the drug lord transferred back to the prison he previously escaped from and in October 2016 the federal judge presiding over his extradition case, Vicente Antonio Bermúdez Zacarías, was murdered.
Only time will tell whether El Chapo will face charges on U.S. soil or once again escape from his confines.