The Rise and Fall of El Chapo

The final arrest of El Chapo, Flickr, Day Donaldson

Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known by his nickname of “El Chapo”, is perhaps the most notorious Mexican drug trafficker still alive in the world. A notoriety furthered by his two prison escapes and his recent arrest whilst trying to organise a biographical film about his life and also seeking an interview with actor Sean Penn. How is it that this man, born in one of the poorest parts of Mexico and with only four years of primary school education, came to be named Public Enemy Number 1 by the city of Chicago- a title not used since Al Capone- and became the USA’s most wanted man? The story is one of drugs and murder on one hand; but also a story of the deep structural and political workings of the Mexican state which go far beyond any one particular man. The sad reality is that El Chapo is simply the face of a drugs trade which pervades almost every level of society and will certainly not have been harmed by his arrest.

Guzmán was born in the area of Badiraguato, Sinaloa- the state undoubtedly most associated with drug trafficking and smuggling in recent Mexican history- with estimates placing the year of his birth between 1954 and 1957. Guzmán is said to have only completed four years of basic education before leaving school to help his father work harvesting marijuana crops in the Sinaloan hills. Guzmán went on to grown his own marijuana crop with his brothers and by the age of 15 had been introduced to the more serious world of organized crime through his uncle, the known trafficker Pedro Avilés Pérez.

The DFS used the generous federal powers given to them to effectively regulate, control, and sponsor the drug trade, charging a tax on every kilo of cocaine that passed through Mexico.

El Chapo then became a member of Mexico’s first major drug trafficking organisation, which would come to be known as the Guadalajara Cartel. It was at this point that El Chapo started serving under Jefe de Jefes– the Boss of Bosses-Ángel Félix Gallardo. Crucially this was El Chapo’s first true experience of dealing with large scale Mexican official corruption. Félix Gallardo himself was a former member of the Mexican equivalent of the FBI (the DFS) and most, if not all, Guadalajara Cartel members carried DFS identification and uniforms for protection and to deter local state police. The DFS used the generous federal powers given to them to effectively regulate, control, and sponsor the drug trade, charging a tax on every kilo of cocaine that passed through Mexico. As Mexican journalist Anabel Hernandez writes in her book Narcoland,  ‘Semi-illiterate peasants like El Principe, Don Neto, El Azul, El Mayo, [leading members of the Cartel] and El Chapo would not have got far without the collusion of businessmen, politicians, and policemen, and all those who exercise everyday power from behind a false halo of legality.’ However, the good times for the Guadalajara Cartel could not last and following the murder of US DEA agent Enrique Camarena, the heads of the Cartel: Don Neto, El Principe, and Félix Gallardo were all eventually arrested as a result of external US pressure on the Mexican government. The Guadalajara Cartel fragmented, with El Chapo going off to work for Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the son of Don Neto and known as El Señor de los Cielos– the Lord of the Skies- for his ability to fly huge deliveries of cocaine into Mexico.

During the early 1990s El Chapo and his friend and partner Héctor Palma vied with the Tijuana Cartel and the Arrellano Félix brothers for control of the Tijuana trafficking route. Violence escalated and murders were a common occurrence, with family members and corrupt officials giving protection to one side often targeted by the other. However matters were brought to a swift end with the death of Cardinal Posadas Ocampo during an alleged shootout between Guzmán and the Tijuana Cartel. Although the real version of events is still unclear. With the death of the Cardinal, El Chapo had become too public a figure for the officials who were backing the Carrillo Fuentes organisation and he was forced to lay low in Guatemala. The media pressure put on the Mexican government to bring those involved in the Cardinal’s murder was too great however and two weeks later Chapo was handed over to the Mexican authorities by the Guatemalan military. In all likelihood he was betrayed by Carrillo Fuentes as a scapegoat for the Mexican authorities.

Chapo’s statements were far too inflammatory and implicated too many public figures to ever be made public

After his arrest and during his transportation into Mexico, under interrogation Chapo claimed to be paying the Deputy Attorney General Frederico Pone Rojas half a million dollars every two months, as well as admitting to giving bribes to high level members of the police in order to cultivate a marijuana plantation and export 700kg of cocaine to the US. However no trace of this original confession remains, likely destroyed by Mexican authorities who instead recorded a second version of El Chapo’s interrogation in which he claimed he was a simple farmer. Chapo’s statements were far too inflammatory and implicated too many public figures to ever be made public. Chapo was subsequently sent to Puente Grande prison for 20 years for drug trafficking charges, and it was in this prison where his criminal career took off.

Once inside El Chapo virtually had the run of the prison, and was said to have enjoyed access to cell phones, prostitutes, liquor, cocaine, and restaurant food. He even threw a 3 day Christmas party during which relatives were brought to the prison and the partygoers were served food such as lobster bisque and filet mignon, Leonardo Beltrán- the warden- was even one of the guests. Guards that could not be bribed were intimidated with violence by Los Fontaneros- The Plumbers- who were Chapo’s henchmen inside and outside the prison. It is whilst in prison that El Chapo is believed to have reached an agreement with federal authorities for what was effectively state sanction of the Sinaloa cartel and federal protection for their endeavours. With his agreements in place it was time for Chapo to leave Puente Grande, which he did on the 19 January 2001. Not, as has been widely circulated, in a laundry cart but instead dressed in federal police uniform which he used to simply walk out of the prison. The level of official sanction was clear when both Enrique Pérez Rodríguez the director general of prevention and rehabilitation and Leonardo Beltrán and Luis Fernández (warden and assistant warden at Puente Grande) kept their jobs despite the escape of El Chapo and the blatant corruption in the prison.

Once out of prison El Chapo, with the help of fellow trafficker Ismael Zambada, set up a meeting of all the major drug traffickers in Mexico, excluding the Tijuana and Gulf Cartels. The purpose of this meeting was to pool together the resources of these traffickers, the Sinaloan Cartel, and the remains of Amado Carrillo Fuente’s Juárez Cartel, into one national organization- the Pacific Cartel, otherwise known as The Federation. This organisation was to have the protection of El Chapo’s federal connections, and the territory and payroll of corrupt local and state employees which each individual trafficker brought to the table. During this momentous meeting it was decided to go to war with the Arellano Félix brothers in Tijuana, an unprecedented move, as in previous ages cartels had not gone as far as an all-out war with each other. However this was a war to be fought on two fronts, by the Federation on one front and the government of the then President Vincente Fox, on the other. Within a short space of time over 1000 members of the Tijuana cartel had been arrested, including Benjamín Arellano Félix, and Ramón Arellano Félix had been murdered by the Federation. The apparatus of the state was then focused to combat the Gulf Cartel, the Federation’s next target. However these government attempts to establish a drug trafficking monopoly, and thereby presumably reduced violence in Mexico, only served to increase violence further. The belligerence of rival cartels was enflamed by El Chapo’s obvious government protection and assistance. In response the Gulf Cartel hired Los Zeta’s- a group of former Mexican Special Forces soldiers who had deserted- and who brought with them the knowledge of modern warfare, advanced weaponry, physical torture, and a understanding of the power of fear. The explosion of violence in Mexico was as a result of this war between the cartels and was greatly compounded by the ever increasing militarism and continued corruption of successive Mexican governments. The media has assailed with images of decapitated corpses, with stories of gruesome mass graves and kidnappings also common. However this superficial and shallow reporting and analysis is ultimately unhelpful. What is clear is that this is more than just wars between trafficking organisations, what we have witnessed is state sponsorship of El Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel against all other. During the years of 2006 to 2010 of all of those in Mexico arrested for involvement in organized crime or criminal association, only 941 people out of 53,174 were connected to El Chapo’s cartel- the largest Cartel in Mexico.

What appears to have finally been Joaquín Guzmán Loera’s down fall is his hubris and a high profile.

Arrested a second time in 2014, El Chapo Guzmán escaped from prison once again on 11 July 2015, almost definitely once again with official collusion. A 1.5 kilometres tunnel had been dug right into Chapo’s cell yet was heard by no-one in the prison. What appears to have finally been Joaquín Guzmán Loera’s down fall is his hubris and a high profile. By courting the media Chapo once again became too public an embarrassment for Mexican authorities, with the state looking either incompetent or collusive with El Chapo’s multiple prison escapes and ability to remain uncaptured. Chapo was arrested for a third time on 8 January 2016, and will now presumably- but not definitely- spend the rest of his life in prison. There are even ongoing attempts by the US to have El Chapo extradited to serve time in an American prison; it appears the El Chapo chapter of Mexican drug trafficking history has come to an end.

The career of El Chapo is a microcosm for the problems facing Mexico today

Biography can be a useful and engaging tool, however El Chapo’s story is more than just the individual hunger for wealth and power of one man. The career of El Chapo is a microcosm for the problems facing Mexico today: massive wealth and education inequalities, as highlighted by Chapo’s limited education and poor upbringing; endemic corruption which reaches right to the highest levels of society; and a descent further and further into violence. Violence resulting from the government’s deployment of military personnel to carry out the duties of the police and the fierce arms race and continued warfare between the cartels; in part as a result of the dominance of the Sinaloa Cartel. El Chapo’s arrest has addressed none of these issues, and indeed evidence suggests all three of these factors continue to worsen. It appears lessons have not been learned from the story of  El Chapo, and until they are more, chapters will be written in this corrupt and violent history.






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