Born in Badiraguato, Mexico, Joaquín Guzmán Loera entered the drug trade as a teenager. Nicknamed “El Chapo,” he founded the Sinaloa cartel in 1989, over time building it into an immensely profitable global drug-trafficking operation. Known for his violent actions and powerful influence, Guzmán has successfully orchestrated daring escapes from maximum-security prisons in his home country. One such escape came in July 2015, although he was recaptured the following January in the Mexican city of Los Mochis.
El Chapo – Rise to Power
By the late 1970s, Guzmán had proven his value in the narcotics business and begun working with another rising young dealer named Héctor Luis Palma Salazar. Guzmán oversaw the movement of drugs from his home district of Sinaloa, a crucial drug trafficking area on the western end of Mexico where narcotics flowed north to coastal cities and into the United States.
By his late 20s, the quiet but savvy Guzmán, whose 5’6″ frame had earned him the nickname, “El Chapo” (“Shorty”), was supervising logistics for another drug kingpin, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, founder of the Guadalajara cartel. Guzmán kept a low profile, but when his boss was eventually arrested for the 1985 murder of an American Drug Enforcement Agency agent, he quickly emerged as one of the new faces of the Mexican drug world.
El Chapo The Drug Kingpin
Inheriting some of his former boss’s territory, Guzmán founded his own cartel, known as Sinaloa, in 1989. By the early 1990s, Guzmán was on the radar of the DEA and FBI and considered one of Mexico’s most powerful and dangerous drug traffickers.
As the power of the Colombian drug cartels like Medellin and Cali began to wane, Sinaloa was among the Mexican organizations filling the void. Under Guzmán’s direction, it took control of the cocaine trade extending from South America to the United States.
Part of the success stemmed from Sinaloa’s creative smuggling methods, most notably a series of air-conditioned tunnels that ran under the Mexican-U.S. border. Another method involved hiding cocaine powder inside fire extinguishers and cans that were labeled “chili peppers.”
“What Al Capone was to beer and whiskey during Prohibition, Guzmán is to narcotics,” said Art Bilek, executive vice president of the Chicago Crime Commission. “Of the two, Guzmán is by far the greater threat . . .And he has more power and financial capability than Capone ever dreamed of.”
In addition to cocaine, Sinaloa trafficked heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine into the U.S. and beyond. Eventually, the cartel’s tentacles touched five continents and grew to be the biggest drug operation in the world.
Guzmán coupled that success with serious muscle. He established gangs with names such as “Los Chachos,” “Los Texas,” “Los Lobos” and “Los Negros” to protect his empire. Over the years, Guzmán’s men have been accused of committing more than 1,000 murders throughout Mexico, the casualties including both incompetent henchmen and rival bosses.
Escape of El Chapo
In 1993, Guatemalan authorities arrested Guzmán and extradited him to Mexico, where he was convicted and sentenced to a maximum-security prison for 20 years.
Even behind bars, however, Guzmán maintained his power. Through bribes he arranged for conjugal visits and was largely allowed to run his drug operation. With his near-mythical lore already established in Mexico — many villages in his home district saw Guzmán as a Robin Hood-like figure — his legend grew in 2001 when, with the help of bribed prison guards, he escaped prison via a laundry cart. A federal investigation led to the arrest of 71 prison employees, including the warden.
On the lam but not out of the drug business, Guzmán only tightened his control and expanded his fortunes over the next decade and a half. In 2009, Sinaloa was reportedly pulling in $3 billion annually, putting Guzmán’s net worth at around $1 billion. That earned him the No. 701 ranking on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people.
Guzmán quickly became the No. 1 drug target of the U.S. government, which offered a $5 million reward for information that led to his arrest. In 2012, the U.S. authorities froze the American assets of his family members.
An aggressive assault on drug cartels started by the Mexican government in 2006 failed to uncover Guzmán, who moved freely around his country. He even got married during that time period, celebrating the event with a large party that included police officers and local politicians among the guests.
In February 2014, Guzmán was finally apprehended in a hotel in the Pacific beach town of Mazatlán, Mexico. Declining requests by American officials to have Guzmán extradited to the United States, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto vowed that Guzmán wouldn’t escape again.
The tunnel escape
Yet, less than 18 months later, Guzmán orchestrated a second daring flight from prison in July 2015. For this escape, Guzmán slipped through an opening in his cell’s shower section, made his way down a 30-foot ladder, and then traveled through a tunnel network that connected his cell to a house that was still under construction about a mile away.
On October 17, 2015, Guzmán was reportedly injured on his face and leg when escaping a failed military manhunt to capture him in the mountains of northwest Mexico. Around that same time, unbeknownst to the rest of the world, he conducted a secret interview with American actor Sean Penn. Guzmán wanted to make a movie about his life and managed to connect to Penn via Mexican actress Kate del Castillo.
On January 8, 2016, Peña Nieto announced on Twitter that Mexican authorities had recaptured Guzmán after a shootout earlier that morning in the city of Los Mochis.
“Mission Accomplished,” the president wrote. “We have him.”
The drug lord’s apprehension came one day before his interview with Penn was published onRolling Stone‘s website. It was unclear whether his communication with the actor contributed to his capture, although Mexican authorities cited the monitoring of his electronic exchanges as helpful to the process.
Guzmán was returned to the same prison from which he escaped the previous summer. He was later moved to a facility near the U.S border in Juarez, Mexico. In October 2016, Vicente Bermudez Zacarias, the judge presiding over Guzmán’s case, was murdered near his home.
In January 2017, the Mexican government extradited Guzmán to the United States to face drug trafficking and other charges. The following day Guzmán appeared in U.S. Federal Court in Brooklyn, New York, and pleaded not guilty to over a dozen charges.
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