On February 22, Mexican Marines and police stormed into the Aenida del Mar Condo tower in Mazatlan. There, they captured the world’s most wanted drug lord, Joaquín Guzmán (“El Chapo”), who had been lying in bed next to his beauty queen wife. The condo contained 97 large guns, 36 handguns, two grenade launchers and a rocket launcher, yet Joaquín Guzmán did not even have time to reach next to his bed to grab his AK-47. He was seized without a single shot fired.
Prior to his recent arrest, Guzmán was able to evade capture due to the corruption and bribery of law enforcement officials and politicians in Mexico. One of NPR’s News Investigations from 2010 “found strong evidence of collusion between the elements of the Mexican army and the Sinaloa Cartel in the violent border city of Juárez.” The report mentioned how the Mexican president of the time, Felipe Calderón, arranged 45,000 federal troops and police to fight drug gangs, yet the Sinaloa Cartel still seemed to be successful.
The investigation quoted former Mexican federal police officer Luis Arturo Perez: “I work in the police and because of this I know the government is protecting Chapo Guzmán. It’s hitting all the cartels but Chapo.” The NPR report also noted several instances of corruption in Mexico. In 2009, the Mexican magazine Proceso revealed that a Sinaloan group controlled several airports around Mexico through “a network of corrupt federal agents.”
Despite this corruption, which allowed Guzman to rise and remain in power, officials were finally able to capture Guzman after months of collaboration between the United States and Mexican governments. The U.S. provided drones and phone taps to verify Guzman’s location. Mexico’s attorney general Jesus Murillo Karam explained that Guzman had several houses. Each had reinforced steel doors and an escape hatch below the bathtubs, which led to underground tunnels. However, when one of Guzmán’s top agents was captured, he admitted he had helped Guzmán flee to Mazatlán. The combination of this information and Immigration Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) wiretaps enabled officials to discover Guzmán’s exact location.
Guzmán became involved with drug cartels at a young age. He was born into a poor family where his family members worked cultivating poppy fields. After dropping out of school in third grade, he followed in the footsteps of his uncle, who was a drug trafficker.
In the 1980s, he began to work for Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo (founder of the Gudalajara Cartel), moving large drug shipments in planes across the U.S.-Mexico border. Guzmán earned a reputation as a man willing to take major risks with a low tolerance for disrespect. In 1989, when Gallardo was captured, Gallardo’s cartel split and Guzmán became head of the Sinaloa Cartel. Guzmán took advantage of internal strife within cartels and gained power and wealth as he continued to smuggle increasingly large amounts of drugs through Mexico.
In 1993, a cartel battle caused the accidental death of Guadalajara’s Catholic Archbishop, putting Guzmán on the radar of law enforcement officials. He was charged in the U.S. with money laundering and racketeering in 1995. Only a few months later, he was arrested in Mexico. After attempting to flee to Guatemala by bribing an official, who was in fact cooperating with the Mexican government, Guzmán was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in a high security prison. However, in mid-January of 2001, Guzmán escaped from prison in a laundry cart with the help of bribed officials. After the arrest of his rival Osiel Cárdenas of the Gulf Cartel in 2003, Guzmán became Mexico’s top drug lord.
Guillermo Valdés, former head of Mexico’s National Security and Investigation Center, told the Spanish Newspaper El Pais, “I think that ‘El Chapo’ is a person with a leadership capacity and a strategic vision that the other narcos don’t have, and they recognize that.” He continued, “He’s a very intelligent person, with a great capacity for listening. With a great ability to seduce people, as well as a large imagination…and creativity.”
The home base of the Sinaloa Cartel, as suggested by its name, is located in the coastal state of Sinaloa, which has a long coastline ideal for smuggling cocaine from South America and rugged mountains fit for hiding marijuana crops. In addition to cocaine and marijuana, the Sinaloa Cartel also smuggles and distributes methamphetamines and heroin. Its empire includes bases in L.A., Oakland, Miami, New York and Phoenix, making the Sinaloa Cartel the U.S.’s top supplier of illegal drugs. Guzmán faces several major indictments in United States federal districts. According to an indictment in Illinois’ Northern District, Guzmán and his cartel made nearly a billion dollars from 2005 to 2008 by selling drugs on the black market in the Chicago area.
The U.S. has been urging Mexico to extradite Guzmán to face trial in the U.S. Those pushing for extradition argue Mexico does not have the means to hold him due to the corruption of officials and police, citing his escape in 2001 from a high security prison. However, as reported in The New York Times, Mexico Attorney General Karam said, “I think it’s important that first he faces the charges against him in Mexico.”
Bruce Bagley of Miami University commented in a New York Times article that “[Guzmán] was a major threat to the integrity and to the national security of Mexico.” He adds that by arresting Guzmán, the government has “eliminated a powerful enemy. He’s a drug lord and a dangerous criminal. It needed to be done.”
However, Bagley also noted, “This is not the end of drug trafficking in Mexico. It’s not the end of the Sinaloa Cartel. And it’s certainly not the end of briberies among cartels or of efforts to establish parasitic and symbiotic relationships with levels of government that permit them through bribery to retain protection from the law.” George Grayson, a professor at the college of William and Mary studying the drug war agreed, mentioning in the same article: “The takedown of Chapo Guzmán is a thorn in the side of the Sinaloa Cartel, but not a dagger in its heart.”