** Originally published at VICE.com and VICE News, on Feb. 24, 2014.
“I’m a farmer.”
So said Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán when the press asked him what he did for a living on June 10, 1993, following his arrest and extradition to Mexico after years on the run. In a way, no truer words have been spoken in the history of the country’s bizarre and bloody drug war.
Guzmán was indeed a kind of “farmer.” The poppy and marijuana crops under his control were the basis of a multibillion-dollar transnational trafficking empire that would eventually make him one of the richest and most wanted men in the world.
He was sentenced to 20 years in a maximum-security prison, but in 2001 he managed to escape, cartoonishly, in a laundry cart. Guzmán expanded his reach by trafficking marijuana, heroin, and cocaine into the United States, Europe, and Australia. He is said to exert control over most of western Mexico, parts of Guatemala, and trafficking ports in West Africa. While his nickname means “Shorty,” there’s nothing diminutive about El Chapo’s stature in the illicit drug world. Forbeshas regularly named him in its lists of richest and “most powerful” people.
Guzmán’s prosperous stint as a fugitive came to an end again on Saturday morning, following an epic 13-year manhunt that left a trail of blood and tragedy as Sinaloa, his cartel, ruthlessly fought off Mexico's security forces on one front and combated rival cartels for control of the country’s lucrative drug trade on another.
Shortly before 7 AM, Mexican authorities captured Guzmán in a condominium buildingoverlooking the water in the Pacific resort city of Mazatlán, in Sinaloa. No shots were fired in the raid, which was assisted by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, the US Marshals Service, and the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Condo 401 looks plain, almost shabby, in photos taken after the raid that led to Guzmán’s capture.
Mexican authorities addressed the media on February 22.
Guzmán was flown to Mexico City. In the afternoon, after Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam delivered a brief statement on the tarmac of the international airport, uniformed soldiers wearing face masks led the drug lord from a navy hangar to a federal police helicopter.
Guzmán wore dark jeans, a pale long-sleeved shirt, and a formidable mustache. The kingpin was briefly seen hunched over and wearing handcuffs. He didn’t take questions and wasn’t heard speaking before the helicopter swiftly carried him away to the Altiplano federal prison. (The Justice Department announced on Sunday that it will seek Guzmán’s extradition to the US.)
Mexican authorities also took no questions; the dais and flag that were used for their statements were packed up within seconds of the helicopter’s departure.
Mexicans were left to absorb the fall of a mythic figure in the country's recent history. Many wondered what would come next. Despite recent drug-liberalization initiatives within the United States—the leading drug-consuming nation in the world—Mexico’s drug war has shown no signs of abating.
Guzmán’s role in the US-Mexico drug trade is a mystery, colored by allegations that he or his operatives maintain contact with US and Mexican authorities, perhaps as protected informants.
Jesús Vicente Zambada, a major Sinaloa cartel operative who was extradited to Chicago to face trafficking charges, has claimed in court that US agents in Mexico gave him and other cartel members immunity in exchange for information about rival cartels, particularly the bloodthirsty Zetas. US prosecutors insist that he had no such deal with federal agents. (Zambada is still awaiting trial.)
While associates and relatives of Guzmán have been arrested or killed in shoot-outs in recent years—among those killed was Guzmán's 22-year-old son, Édgar, in 2008—others in his inner circle have been known to move about on either side of the border.
In the summer of 2011, Guzmán’s wife, Emma Coronel, gave birth to twin girls at a hospital in Los Angeles County. Guzmán married the former beauty queen in a extravagant party in 2007, when she was only 18. Federal agents monitored Coronel, a US citizen, while she was in California. Because there were no charges against her, she freely returned to Mexico with her children.
Guzmán was born in 1957 in a village called La Tuna, located in the Sinaloa municipality of Badiraguato—one of the poorest counties in all of Mexico. His father was a gomero, or poppy farmer, but Guzmán grew up mostly poor and neglected, and eager to prove himself.
Badiraguato is considered the gateway to the "Golden Triangle," the rough and remote poppy- and cannabis-growing region of the Sierra Madre mountain range that runs down western Mexico, dominating Sinaloa and neighboring Durango and Chihuahua. Some of the biggest names in Mexico’s narcotics industry were also born in Badiraguato, including Rafael Caro Quintero, an old-school drug lord who was released from prison on a technicality last August, after 28 years behind bars.
According to the book The Last Narco by Malcolm Beith, Guzmán got started in the drug industry as a lieutenant to Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, considered the godfather of Mexico’s cocaine shipping trade, in what was then known as the Guadalajara cartel. After Félix Gallardo’s capture in 1989, Guzmán and his group within the Sinaloa cartel effectively took over and began expanding, killing, or disappearing anyone who stood in their way. By 1993, when Guzmán survived an assassination attempt in Guadalajara that left an archbishop dead, El Chapo’s legend already loomed large in Mexico.
Pressure began mounting on the government to score a victory against the drug traffickers, which led to Guzmán’s capture in the summer of 1993 by Guatemalan authorities and his extradition to Mexico. Guzmán reportedly enjoyed a lavish lifestyle within the maximum-security prison Puente Grande. According to a 2009 Wall Street Journal profile, he was so well-pampered during his stint in the pit that his set-up rivaled the comforts of his beachside condo in Mazatlán. He had a television and a cellphone to direct his drug empire, selected meals from a menu, smuggled plenty of contraband, and received visits from cartel members and prostitutes. He kept a supply of Viagra on hand.
Guzmán’s escape coincided with the transition to a multi-party democracy after the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was interrupted by the election of President Vicente Fox, a member of the conservative National Action Party (PAN). Fox took office in December 2000 as the first non-PRI president in Mexico’s post-Revolutionary history. Guzmán escaped from Puente Grande a month later.
The country’s bitterly contested 2006 presidential election resulted in a second presidential term for PAN under Felipe Calderón. Immediately after taking office, Calderón launched a military campaign against drug cartels in his home state of Michoacán. The new president even made an appearance in public wearing military fatigues.
Troops rolled into cities and towns within cartel territories, sparking warfare in major cities like Monterrey, Ciudad Juárez, Tijuana, Morelia, Acapulco, and Culiacán, Sinaloa’s capital.
The six years of Calderón’s presidential term proved to be the bloodiest period in Mexico’s history since its revolution, more than a century before. At least 70,000 people were killed in drug violence during that time, and some 26,000 people went missing. Only a small fraction of these cases will ever be solved. Most of these atrocities occurred because of a government-approved, prohibitionist drug war in which Guzmán was arguably the most symbolic figure.
Sightings of Guzmán abounded for the next several years. He was said to be in Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras, and even the US. Narcocorridos about his exploits could be heard in nightclubs, on YouTube, and over the airwaves in northern Mexico (until authorities banned their broadcast). When Guzmán dined out, he would pay the tabs of the other diners. It seemed for a while that El Chapo was everywhere except prison.
In 2009, a Catholic archbishop in the state of Durango said that Guzmán was living just up the road from a town called Guanacevi. “Everyone knows it, except the authorities,” he said.
The Sinaloa cartel made strategic decisions to combat its rivals—the Gulf cartel, the Zetas, and the Beltran Leyva gang—across Mexico. Violence erupted in Guerrero, Veracruz, and Michoacán, with Mexico’s security forces killing and capturing various capos.
Ciudad Juárez saw the worst of the warfare by far. An estimated 11,000 people were killed in there between 2007 and 2012. Over the same span, more than 7,000 civilian complaints of military abuses were registered with the country’s National Human Rights Commission.
In the course of the conflict, the US played an unprecedented role in Mexican law enforcement, making it seem almost as though the US agents operating in Mexico were practically in control of the push to find and capture Guzmán and others. Calderón left office in December 2012 and turned over power to Enrique Peña Nieto, returning the PRI to the presidency and introducing uncertainty about the direction of the fight against cartels.
With Guzmán’s capture, there’s no telling what will happen next. History has shown that the capture of top capos in Mexico often precipitates a violent struggle among splintering forces to fill the power vacuum. The leadership of the Sinaloa cartel is said to have shifted to Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, Jesús Vicente's father, who is believed to be Guzmán’s second-in-command. But reports have also noted that Dámaso López, a young, flashy capo known as “El Mini Lic,” could position himself strongly within the top ranks of the Sinaloa cartel in Guzmán’s absence.
At the same time, rival cartels could detect an opening in Guzmán’s arrest and seek to regain ground that they have lost to the Sinaloa cartel in recent years. This would be a very dark turn of events.