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Monday, July 13, 2015

This one's more like Hollywood

On June 26, I wrote about the differences between Richard Matt, one of the two escapees from Dannemora prison, and the way prison escapees are usually portrayed by the movies.

Two night ago, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the world's most powerful drug lord, escaped from the maximum security Altiplano prison 90 miles outside of Mexico City. Evidently while he was there a one mile long underground tunnel leading all the way to his prison cell was built, and he escaped through that. (How could people from his cartel possibly have done this without the collusion of many of the personnel at that maximum security jail?)

Guzman was more like someone Hollywood would have dreamed up.


His nickname, "El Chapo," which means "the shorty," derived from Guzman's height of 5' 6." But Guzman was in many ways larger than life, as befits the world's most powerful drug lord.

According to Wikipedia:

Guzmán has been ranked by Forbes magazine as one of the most powerful people in the world every year since 2009, ranking 41st, 60th and 55th respectively. He was named as the 10th richest man in Mexico (1,140th in the world) in 2011, with a net worth of roughly US$ 1 billion. The magazine also calls him the "biggest drug lord of all time," and the DEA believes he has surpassed the influence and reach of Pablo Escobar, and now considers him "the godfather of the drug world." In 2013, the Chicago Crime Commission named Guzmán "Public Enemy Number One" due to the influence of his criminal network in Chicago, though there is no evidence that Guzmán has ever been in that city. The last person to receive such notoriety was Al Capone in 1930.

Guzmán's Sinaloa Cartel smuggles multi-ton cocaine shipments from Colombia through Mexico to the United States, the world's top consumer, and has distribution cells throughout the U.S. The organization has also been involved in the production, smuggling and distribution of Mexican methamphetamine, marijuana, MDMA and heroin across both North American and European markets. At the time of his 2014 arrest, Guzmán imported more drugs into the United States than anyone else.


The automatic assumption would be that Guzman, who rose to power during an unprecedentedly bloody era in the history of drug cartels, would have to be a sociopath. I'm not saying he's not one; but when you read his personal history, you don't get the sense of personal vindictiveness, dishonesty, and overall pretense that you normally get with a sociopath. It's more just the sense of an ambitious businessman, or perhaps military leader, going about his job capably.

And if you read about El Chapo's early childhood, you'll see that he basically just joined the family business.

From the "Early Life" section of his Wiki bio:

For many generations, his family lived and died at La Tuna. His father was officially a cattle rancher, as were most in the area where Guzmán grew up; according to some sources, however, he may have possibly also been a gomero, a Sinaloan word for opium poppy farmer….

Few details are known of Guzmán's upbringing. As a child, Guzmán sold oranges, and dropped out of school in third grade to work with his father. Guzmán was regularly beaten and sometimes fled to his maternal grandmother's house to escape such treatment. However, when he was home, Guzmán stood up to his father to protect his younger siblings from being beaten….His mother, however, was the "foundation of [his] emotional support". As the nearest school to his home was about 60 mi (95.6 km) away, Guzmán was taught by traveling teachers during his early years, just like the rest of his brothers. The teachers stayed for a few months before moving to other areas. With few opportunities for employment in his hometown, he turned to the cultivation of opium poppy, a common practice among local residents….Guzmán, at the age of 15, cultivated his own marijuana plantation with four distant cousins, who lived nearby. With his first marijuana productions, Guzmán supported his family financially.

When he was a teenager, however, his father kicked him out of his house, and he went to live with his grandfather….Though most people in Badiraguato worked in the poppy fields of the Sierra Madre Occidental throughout most of their lives, Guzmán left his hometown in search of greater opportunities; through his uncle Pedro Aviles Perez, one of the pioneers of Mexican drug trafficking, he left Badiraguato in his 20s and joined organized crime.

An abusive father but a mother who loved him doesn't necessarily spell sociopathy. Either way, El Chapo's career as a drug dealer succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of even most sociopaths. He reportedly had 16 mansions, 46 vehicles, and 4 ranches.

When just one of his many houses was raided (this one) --


-- the authorities found $207 million in cash secreted in suitcases, in closets, and in the walls. There's a fairly famous picture of the stash, in case you haven't seen it already:


They also found a collection of fancy guns, many of them gold-plated:


And an exotic animal collection, including this white tiger:


(What self-respecting drug lord's zoo does not include a white tiger?)

This article from last year raised the question of the whereabouts of of El Chapo's "third or fourth" wife, the 24-year-old Emma Coronel, when El Chapo was arrested last year. He had married the beauty queen --




-- in 2011, when he was 57 and she was just 18. She wasn't the woman he was with when he was arrested in Mazatlan in 2014. But she is the mother of two of his children. Wherever she is at the moment, it's a safe bet that she is not destitute.

It's a little hard to blame the prison employees for having cooperated with the Sinaloa cartel. When Pablo Escobar reigned in Colombia, one of the ways he held onto his power for so long was keeping many police, judges, and journalists in his sphere of influence. He let them all know that if they looked the other way, he would give them upwards of half a million dollars; if they did their jobs responsibly, he would kill not only them but their families as well.

It wasn't really much of a choice.

And it doesn't stretch credulity to imagine that the Sinaloa cartel does business the same way.

The nature of El Chapo's escape will be far different from that of the two killers from Dannemora. El Chapo won't be stumbling around alone in the forest, fighting off the mosquitoes and  subsisting on stolen candy bars and getting drunk on stolen booze.

The same people who built that tunnel have long since whisked him off to one of his many safe houses, most of which have been built with secret, steel-reinforced trapdoors leading to yet more tunnels.

Maybe El Chapo will be caught again, maybe not. If he is, he will have undoubtedly lived quite large in the meantime.

(Looking back over this post, it occurs to me that it reads suspiciously like a narcocorrido, one of those Mexican ballads glorifying drug traffickers. Hadn't intended to do that, it just sort of came out that way.)

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have always been under the impression that the reason that people like Guzman exist is because the U.S. Government is unwilling to fight drug trafficking the way it should.For whatever reason, they are willing to tolerate natural level of drug importation and related crimes. My hypothesis is that U.S. government need to provide criminals to keep the prison-industrial complex running.

mark said...

A great advertisement for a fence. Talked to a young Mexican girl today who said that most Mexicans believe that the guy that escaped was actually a paid impostor. A faux Chapo if you will. Why would they work that hard(or work at all) to free a fake Chapo? People from poor countries really do like their conspiracies. Also, what is this about him being short(5'6)? Is that short for a Mexican? Anyway, just stumbled across your blog and enjoyed it. Slightly off topic, but I do have a little bit more sympathy for Obama then you do. If I gave many speeches in front of thousands of cheering people it would effect my ego too. Not a fan of Obama, but I can understand why Obama is a fan of Obama.

7 feet said...

that was a story told to perfection

John Craig said...

Anon --
That strikes me as a little farfetched. Guzman's reach evidently extended to Europe as well (as per the Wiki article I quoted); are the Europeans allowing him to do the same there in order to keep their complex running? The DEA, whenever it can intercept the drugs, usually end up destroying them. I talked to a young guy who works for the Coast Guard recently and he said they do the same. And running prisons is far more an expense than a profit for any government.

John Craig said...

Mark --
I'm with you on the fence. And I agree, the guy in jail was no impostor, otherwise the tunnel makes no sense. And it was not only the effort that went into the tunnel, it was the fact that they sprang him at all: the real El Chapo would have wanted the impostor to stay in jail, so as to take the heat off him. I think the Mexicans not only like their conspiracies, but their heroes as well. My guess as to his nickname is that he is, like many NBA players, listed as taller than he actually is.

As far as Obama, he's been that way since long before he was President. When he was at Harvard law, the other students used the term "Obamamometer" to denote someone who spoke up in class in a particularly self-serving way. That term even outlasted Obama's stay at the school. And think about it, this was a guy who wrote two autobiographies by his early 40's, when the publisher had originally asked him to write about something else. His narcissistic personality was formed very early on, by his two parents, a father he never knew, and a mother who didn't seem to love him all that much. (She left him for a year on two separate occasions before he turned 16.) When people are unloved as children, they tend to end up loving themselves in various unhealthy ways.

Anyway, thanks for reading, and I hope you stick around.

John Craig said...

7 feet --
Thank you.

Anonymous said...

If he had $200M in one house he is likely a multibillionaire

John Craig said...

Anon --
Agreed, in fact I was going to mention that in a post tomorrow.

Andrew Hoepfl said...

Look up Heriberto Goyeneche, which is by the way not how you spell Joaquin Guzman. Why would chapo not work hard to get his best scapegoat out of jail. El Mayo hypothetically takes chappo place when he gets arrested, but to believe that it's impossible for the most wanted person on earth to have a lookalike that views him as a god is not as far fetched as you think. I'm not saying it's true but of if you look into this stuff it's not completely blind gibberish.

John Craig said...

Andrew --
Wow, I'd never heard of Goyeneche before. All of the articles I saw from Googling his name were in Spanish, but I got the idea. Yes, could be possible.