The Drug Lord Who Got Away: Mexican Capo Unleashes Mayhem on U.S. Border; The Making of a Legend

As reported by the Wall Street Journal:

BADIRAGUATO, Mexico — As a child, Joaquín Guzmán Loera was so poor that he sold oranges to scrape together money for a meal. Since then, the 52-year-old has built a business empire and a personal fortune currently tied for number 701 on Forbes magazine’s list of global titans.

He also has another ranking: Mexico’s most wanted man.

Mr. Guzmán is the informal CEO of one of the world’s biggest drug-trafficking organizations, the so-called Sinaloa cartel, named for its home state of Sinaloa. It smuggles a big part of the marijuana, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines that end up on American streets, and it has links to organized crime in 23 countries, according to Mexican and U.S. officials.

Mr. Guzmán’s rivalries and turf wars have contributed to a drug-war death toll that stands at 11,000 in the past two and a half years, an average of 366 murders per month. His feuds stretch back more than two decades, leaving a trail of tombstones that act as milestones of the narcotics business south of the border.

Part Al Capone and part Jesse James, Mr. Guzmán has become a narco folk hero. He is feted on YouTube videos and by musicians who pen ballads, known as corridos, in his honor. He is known throughout Mexico simply as “El Chapo,” Mexican slang for a short and stocky man.

Adding to his mystique, “El Chapo” has survived several assassination attempts by rival gangs, including a 1993 attack that killed a Roman Catholic cardinal. He also pulled off the greatest escape in modern Mexico: from a maximum security prison in 2001 — in a laundry cart. Ever since, he has stayed a step ahead of Mexican and U.S. officials in a game of cat and mouse that is now in its ninth year.

Each year that Mexico is unable to catch “El Chapo” his legend grows — a direct challenge to the authority of the Mexican state. Last year, he flouted authorities by hosting a party, complete with cases of whiskey and a norteño band, in a remote Mexican village to watch his 18-year-old girlfriend, Emma Coronel, win a local beauty contest. Months later, he married her.

With each year, too, questions grow about why Mexico, together with help from the U.S., can’t find him — despite a $5 million bounty offered by Washington (tips can be sent to chapotips@usdoj.gov) and a $2 million reward from the Mexican government.

U.S. and Mexican officials say Mr. Guzmán has used money and cruelty to build a well-disciplined organization that protects him. He is believed to be hiding in the towering Sierra Madre mountains that run through Sinaloa and bordering states, making the task of finding him a bit like finding Osama bin Laden in the forbidding mountains of Pakistan. Another factor: Mr. Guzmán is believed to have bribed enough Mexican law-enforcement and army officials to get timely tip-offs that allow him to avoid capture.

Culiacan, Sinoloa is the unofficial capital of Mexico’s drug-trafficking business. Given the shortened lifespan for drug traffickers, shrines and mausoleums honoring fallen narcos have become an integral part of the city’s landscape. David Luhnow and Jose de Cordoba reports from Mexico.

On at least three occasions during the past three years, Mexican security agencies have gotten leads on Mr. Guzmán, only to find he had vanished by the time they turned up, according to a U.S. official. Part of the problem is logistics. In the mountains, the capo’s people can spot a caravan of military vehicles coming from miles away, giving him time to flee on anything from a helicopter to horseback.

Over the past few years, Mr. Guzmán has regularly visited a ranch in the remote mountains of Chihuahua state to check on his marijuana crop, according to a 2008 Mexican intelligence document reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The ranch, owned by Mr. Guzmán’s associates, has an airstrip and an underground tunnel for access. “On at least three visits, he has arrived with a caravan of at least six vehicles, under the protection of some authorities in the Mexican army,” the document says.

Mexico’s Defense Ministry said in an email that it was unaware of the allegations, but added that “various criminal organizations have used army clothing and vehicles as a cover for their activities.”

In April, the archbishop in Durango, a state known for its scorpions, outlaws and rugged wilderness, declared that Mr. Guzmán was living there. “Just up the road from [the town of] Guanaceví, that’s where he lives, but, well, we all seem to know this except for the authorities,” Archbishop Héctor Gonzalez Martinez told local reporters.

Four days later, the bullet-riddled bodies of two army lieutenants turned up near Guanaceví in the trunk of a car, blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs. Next to the dead men was a note that read: “Neither the government nor the priests can handle ‘El Chapo.'”

Purported sightings of Mr. Guzmán are common. In at least three Mexican cities, including Culiacán, Sinaloa’s capital, people have reported seeing the capo turn up to eat at a local restaurant. They say he was preceded by bodyguards who confiscated diners’ cell phones and didn’t allow anyone to leave. As repayment for the patrons’ brief loss of liberty, Mr. Guzmán was said to have paid everyone’s tab.

An owner of one of the restaurants denies any such thing happened. But a Mexican intelligence report says that at least one of the restaurant stories is believed to be true.

Mexican officials say they don’t want to get obsessed with capturing Mr. Guzmán at the expense of winning the broader war on drugs. “In the past, the strategy was just to capture top guys and ignore the operational guys. Now we are trying to weaken the structure of the cartels,” says Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora.

This week alone, Mexican troops arrested José Parra, a leading gunman for the Sinaloa cartel who police say was helping Mr. Guzmán’s outfit wage war against the Tijuana cartel, a fight that claimed 749 lives last year. And in Durango, soldiers said they killed three of Mr. Guzman’s gunmen, including the alleged head of his organization in that city, and captured two others.

A U.S. official agrees that the capture of Mr. Guzmán himself would do little to slow the illegal drug market, but said it would be a major coup. “Catching him would be like the capture of Saddam Hussein after the Iraq war,” says the U.S. official. “His capture didn’t stop the insurgency, but it was a huge victory.”

Some U.S. officials believe Mexico will catch Mr. Guzmán soon. They say his status as Mexico’s most wanted man forces him to be constantly on the move, making it harder to conduct day-to-day business. They say he has aged rapidly in appearance, and draw parallels to the late Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, who was finally killed after years on the lam.

“Chapo Guzmán is a dead man walking, and he knows it,” says Michael Braun, who retired eight months ago as the head of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. “No one in his business lives to old age, or to enjoy his grandchildren.”

But Mr. Guzmán has been underestimated before. In 2005, then Mexican Attorney General Daniel Cabeza de Vaca said Mr. Guzmán was “no longer operating” in the drug business. In early 2007, the current attorney general, Mr. Medina Mora, wrote off Mr. Guzmán as a has-been in the drug business.

“I don’t care where he is,” he told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. “He’s like a washed-up soccer star.”

Story by David Luhnow and Jose de Cordoba continued..


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