Guadalajara, Mexico – With no formal education but a brilliant business mind, Joaquin Guzman Loera rose from selling oranges on the street to fronting the world’s most powerful drug-trafficking organisation. He had escaped prison, made billions of dollars and oversaw one of the bloodiest periods in Mexico’s history, but his reign finally came to an end on February 22 when masked marines frogmarched the short, scowling Guzman before the media and then whisked him off for interrogation. Now he is behind bars once again.
As the net tightened around him, Guzman fled into the sewers via an elaborate network of tunnels that linked seven safe houses in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state. He then drove south to a seafront condominium in the Pacific Ocean resort town of Mazatlan, where he was caught napping in an early-morning raid.
President Enrique Pena Nieto basked in the plaudits, claiming that the arrest brought his government closer to “achieving peace in Mexico”. In the US, where Guzman dominated the illegal drug trade, the DEA, which aided Mexico in locating him, hailed the detention as “a significant achievement for Mexico and a major step forward in our shared fight against transnational organised crime, violence, and drug trafficking”. US Attorney General Eric Holder added that Guzman had allegedly overseen “the death and destruction of millions of lives across the globe through drug addiction, violence, and corruption”.
But on the streets here in Mexico, there is no tangible sense of public optimism – or even relief; only stunned disbelief that the most infamous kingpin since Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar had finally been caught.
Rags to riches
He rose fast through the organisation and developed a reputation for being very calculating.
Known as “El Chapo” [“Shorty”], Guzman was born in 1957 in La Tuna, a remote village in a mountainous region of Sinaloa where local industry revolves around the cultivation of opium and marijuana. Having dropped out of school in the third grade, Guzman tried his hand at growing opium poppies before joining the powerful Guadalajara Cartel in the early 1980s.
“He rose fast through the organisation and developed a reputation for being very calculating, very intelligent, very business savvy, and at times, when necessary, ruthless,” said Malcolm Beith, author of the Guzman biography, The Last Narco. “The drug world is a dog-eat-dog world and I think those qualities are the key to his success.”
An innovative and ingenious drug-trafficker, Guzman formed the Sinaloa Cartel, also known as the Federation, after the Guadalajara Cartel broke up in 1989. “He surrounded himself with the right people and learned very quickly on the job,” Beith told Al Jazeera.
Guzman’s first setback came in 1993, when he was arrested in Guatemala in connection with the murder of a Catholic cardinal. Although imprisoned in Guadalajara’s maximum security Puente Grande, Guzman continued managing his affairs from inside, where he reportedly threw wild parties and enjoyed regular access to drugs, prostitutes and restaurant meals. Legend has it that he escaped in 2001 by hiding in a laundry basket, but a thorough investigation by Mexican journalist Anabel Hernandez indicated that Guzman was escorted out in a police uniform, having paid out millions in bribes.
Once free, Guzman quickly established himself as Mexico’s dominant kingpin and amassed an estimated billion-dollar fortune. By 2009, Forbes ranked him as the 41st most powerful man on earth and when Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011, he became the US’ most wanted criminal. Two years later he inherited famed gangster Al Capone’s crown as Public Enemy #1 in Chicago, the Federation’s largest US trafficking hub.
Despite such attention, Guzman always evaded arrest – while rival cartels bore the brunt of a government crusade against organised crime. “Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel made alliances with the right people, whether they were rivals or corrupt officials, and they waged war at exactly the right times,” Beith said.
Many Mexicans suspect the Federation benefited from corruption at the very highest levels. In her 2013 book Narcoland, Hernandez alleged that presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party protected Guzman, but both have steadfastly denied such accusations. Ernesto Garcia, a spokesperson for Fox, told Al Jazeera that the former president had dismissed such claims as “nonsense”.
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By the mid-2000s the Sinaloa Cartel had become a vast empire, trafficking marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines through some 50 countries. Its global expansion was partly facilitated by the “War on Terror”, which disrupted opium production in Afghanistan, Beith said. The cartel also benefited from Guzman’s near-mythical reputation, as any world-class drug-trafficking organisation requires a leader with an aura, he explained.
Although a ruthless killer, some viewed Guzman as a folk hero because he made philanthropic donations in local communities, refused to countenance extortion or kidnappings, and ensured a degree of stability in his territories. Days after Guzman’s arrest, more than a thousand supporters marched through Culiacan, calling for his release and emphasising the many jobs he created in his home state of Sinaloa.
But Guzman’s aggressive nature also earned him some powerful enemies. Award-winning journalist Rafael Loret de Mola told Al Jazeera that, in 2010, Guzman made a chilling phone call to Pena Nieto, then-governor of Mexico State, and accused him of protecting members of the rival Beltran Leyva Cartel who operated in the area.
“Listen governor, I’m Joaquin Guzman Loera. You recognise the name? I know you protected Arturo Beltran’s hit men,” Guzman is said to have told the future president. “From this moment your life is in my hands. You will not reach the presidency.” But Pena Nieto did become president, and, within 15 months of his inauguration, Guzman was again behind bars.
With Guzman’s partners Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Juan Jose “El Azul” Esparragoza set to assume control of the Federation, his arrest is unlikely to significantly damage the cartel’s business model.
Drug war analyst Sylvia Longmire told Al Jazeera that the transition should be “pretty smooth”, given Guzman and Zambada’s 25-year friendship, and emphasised Esparragoza’s discreet but important role: “‘El Azul’ is a really good negotiator and he’s keeping that pipeline going… He’s a businessman and he knows how to keep things stable.”
However, Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope argued that change in the cartel leadership is inevitable. “‘El Mayo’ is 66 years old. He’s a great-grandfather. He’s not the future of the organisation,” he told Al Jazeera.
Another threat to the Federation is that posed by rival cartels such as Los Zetas, sensing vulnerability and attempting incursions into Sinaloa territory. This could mean border cities on key trafficking routes will become flashpoints for violence once again.
Capturing Guzman has earned the Pena Nieto administration a greater degree of legitimacy “in terms of both public opinion and in the eyes of the United States”, Hope noted, but signs of improved bilateral relations were quickly tempered by the Mexican government’s reluctance to extradite Guzman. If he does remain in Mexico, the government must “take extreme measures [to ensure] that not only does he not escape again, but that he’s not still running the show from inside prison”, Longmire warned.
Given the wealth of information that Guzman possesses, the Mexican authorities could sense an opportunity to pursue not only his cartel allies, but also the crooked politicians and police chiefs who allegedly protected him. “The hope is that they use his testimony in a practical, pragmatic way for the good of the country. When you find out something’s wrong with the system you can point fingers all you like – or you can fix it,” Beith told Al Jazeera.
Yet for all the opportunities that Guzman’s detention presents, the arrest of any one person – no matter how powerful – will never significantly disrupt the drug trade, Beith added. “The market is there and someone’s going to tap into it, whether it’s the Sinaloa Cartel or someone else.”
Follow Duncan Tucker on Twitter: @DuncanTucker