Such is the paradoxical life of alleged drug trafficker Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzman, whose Sinaloa cartel has trafficked an estimated $14 billion-worth of drugs—primarily cocaine and marijuana—into the United States. For over a decade now, the Sinaloa cartel’s operation has been considered the most powerful in Mexico, and, by extension, the world.
“He’s become the most famous—or infamous—Mexican drug trafficker of all time,” says Ioan Grillo, a journalist who covers organized crime and narcotics in Mexico and has written two books, El Narco and Gangster Warlords, on the topic.
This is why Guzman‘s trial, the opening statements of which are set to start on November 13, 2018, has generated international interest—and localized fear. In jury selection, several prospective jurors asked to not serve, out of fear that doing so would endanger their lives. (UPDATE: On July 17, 2019, Guzman was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of murder, drug and money laundering charges in February.)
Given the drug lord’s past, their reticence is understandable.
El Chapo’s nefarious beginnings
Like his Colombian analogue and antecedent Pablo Escobar, El Chapo Guzman entered into his life of crime in his early adolescence, allegedly cultivating marijuana and poppy flowers for heroin production from his rural pueblo of La Tuna, in the high hills of Northern Mexico.
Grillo says it’s difficult to know where the myth of El Chapo ends and the facts of Joaquin Guzman begin, but it’s commonly held to be true that the drug lord’s cocaine career took off in the 1980s. It was at this time when he came under the tutelage of Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, aka “El Padrino,” a Sinaloan drug trafficker who would be detained in 1989. After Gallardo was arrested, Guzman became boss of a territory that ran along the border from Mexicali to Nogales.
His timing couldn’t have been better. The 1980s had been dominated by Colombian drug cartels, but their rampant success—and the violence that came in its wake—had drawn heat from the U.S. federal government. Extraditions became more commonplace.
In 1993 Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar was hunted down and killed, possibly by American agents. In the face of ratcheted U.S. pressure, Colombian manufacturers retreated, electing instead to sell their goods to the Sinaloa cartel and other Mexican organized-crime outfits from the safe side of the border. Those groups, in turn, smuggled the drugs into the American market, and made massive profits.
Escalation of violence
As drug money flowed, so did blood. And Guzman was in the center of the chaos and carnage, rapidly expanding his empire amid a hail of bullets. In 1993, he was even linked to the assassination of Juan Jesús Cardinal Posadas Ocampo, a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church who was shot in his car near the Guadalajara airport when assassins for a rival drug cartel mistook the cardinal for El Chapo.
Then, in the 21st century, Mexican cartel violence exploded.
Grillo, who has been reporting on Mexican organized crime since 2001, describes the escalation in macabre terms.
“It used to be that you’d turn up at crime scenes and you’d find three bodies, five bodies. And then you’d start turning up to decapitations. And then the bodies were mutilated—the genitals cut off. And then it went from a pile of 12 decapitated heads to 18.”
In their case against Guzman, federal prosecutors originally wished to charge the drug lord with 33 murders in addition to the drug conspiracy charges. That request was scaled back when the presiding judge expressed exasperation at what he perceived as a logistically “out of control” number to adjudicate in a single court case, especially given that the case centers on drug trafficking (rather than mass murder).
A public enemy committing murder in public
When one looks at the details of the cases, it’s easy to understand why the prosecutors were so eager to charge El Chapo with as many murders as they could. Cartels basically leave calling cards with their corpses, says Grillo.
“At a lot of murder scenes, their bodies are dumped, and the drug traffickers will write messages on bits of cardboard or on blankets or on printed stuff and leave them by the bodies. And they will often sign them in the name of a certain drug trafficker,” he says, adding: “There have been a lot of murder scenes where the name of El Chapo has been signed.”
Over the last 15 years, murders became ever more violent—and ever more public. As the Sinaloa cartel warred with the rival Zetas (another cartel), some victims would be publicly beheaded, or have their murders posted on social media.
According to Grillo, public murders peaked in 2012. “It’s died down a bit,” he says. “Initially, there were murder videos that got moved around on the internet… Now people are almost burned out with it.”
The journalist adds that those videos were meant to reach three audiences: rival gangs, innocent civilians and prospective new recruits
He describes it as an old method, one that dates back to Roman times, when the Romans would behead Gaulish leaders
“[It’s to create terror amongst civilians so people don’t inform,” he concludes.”…But I think it also sends a message to other people on the street: when you have two cartels fighting over a territory, people want to work with the toughest organization. Who is the baddest organization here? That’s the mentality behind it.”
Arrest, escape, fame
El Chapo’s ruthlessness in expanding his empire helped establish his influence. But it was his escapes from prison that launched him to international celebrity.
In 2001, he escaped Puente Grande maximum security prison in the Mexican state of Jalisco via a laundry cart. Then after he was re-apprehended, he re-escaped in 2015, this time through a tunnel that co-conspirators had dug into his shower. That escape was captured on video and disseminated to the world.
“I don’t know if he has more money than [the leaders of all other cartels], or if he’s moved more drugs than them. I don’t know if American prosecutors really know that,” says Grillo. “But certainly he’s… the most infamous drug trafficker in the world. He’s on the level of Pablo Escobar and Al Capone—one of the three biggest outlaws of the past 100 years.”