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'El Chapo': The Most Powerful Drug Lord in History?

U.S. officials have said that notorious Mexican criminal Joaquin Guzman, alias 'El Chapo,' is the most powerful drug dealer of all time. But does the Sinaloan outlaw’s criminal empire really exceed that of the infamous Pablo Escobar?

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Joaquin Guzman is currently one of the most wanted criminals in the world. In fact, Guzman’s power has become so great that a senior U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) official recently told Forbes magazine that the kingpin is now the most influential drug runner in history. “Chapo has a vast criminal enterprise and he has become the leading drug trafficker of all time,” said the official, who asked to be left anonymous due to security concerns. “He is the godfather of the drug world.”

Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel is notorious among law enforcement officials, and it is widely regarded as the largest and most powerful drug trafficking organization in the Western Hemisphere. Because the group is a coalition of Mexico’s top drug traffickers, it is often referred to as a “federation” of smaller drug trafficking entities which operate jointly in order to protect themselves and maintain a smoother flow of business.

As the cartel’s head, Guzman makes vast sums of money, winning him a place on Forbes’s list of the world’s wealthiest individuals for the past three years. Still, it is hard to see how "El Chapo" could rival the late Pablo Escobar in terms of wealth. While Guzman’s net worth is estimated to be around one billion dollars, in 1987 Escobar was thought to be the seventh-richest man on the planet, with a personal wealth of close to 25 billion dollars. A year before this assessment, he made headlines for offering to pay off Colombia’s·$13 billion national debt.

Although Escobar may have been wealthier than Guzman, they both worked to win the support of the public. In addition to funding various housing projects and civic associations, Escobar was responsible for the construction of a number of hospitals, schools and churches around the country. This strategy earned him a reputation as a champion of the poor, and helped him cultivate a network of supporters and informants.

Like his Colombian predecessor, Guzman also enjoys considerable support amongst lower-class sectors of Mexican society, particularly in the “Golden Triangle” region of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua states, which is the epicenter of the Sinaloa Cartel’s operations. In this rugged and mountainous area, local farmers grow opium and marijuana in vast quantities and are reportedly rewarded for their work by regular handouts and favors from Guzman. As one U.S. drug official recently told the Associated Press: "With Chapo, he's got the whole Robin Hood thing going. People in close proximity to him might not be motivated to turn him in."

This support base has made capturing him extremely difficult. According to the security consulting firm Stratfor, when the Mexican capo married his third wife in Coahuila in July 2007, the local military commander closed the area off with roadblocks, likely after receiving a payoff. Local politicians are also under the sway of the drug lord. In 2005, the New York Times reported that the mayor of Badiraguato refused to say Guzman’s name aloud to a reporter.

Another similarity between the two drug kingpins is their ability to evade the authorities. During the height of his power in the mid 1980s Escobar lived openly in Medellin and took his family to trips to the U.S., visiting Disneyland and the nation's capital. Today, Guzman is rumored to move from continent to continent using fake identities.

According to a 2009 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Mexican authorities then suspected that Guzman was hiding out in the mountains of Durango, moving between 10 to 15 safe houses around the state with an armed security detail of about 300 men. As recently as June 8, however, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom claimed that the kingpin travels between his country and Honduras. This follows reports in May that “El Chapo” had been living in Argentina throughout 2010.

Guzman shares the apparent invulnerability that Escobar enjoyed before his decline, but lacks the Colombian's high-profile status, which may be a strategic choice. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the different ways in which the two have dealt with capture. When Colombian officials managed to convince Escobar to surrender in 1991, he negotiated a deal that allowed him to stay in his own luxurious private prison, known as La Catedral.

La Catedral had amenities such as a soccer field, bar, jacuzzi and giant doll house, and the compound was often referred to as "Hotel Escobar," or "Club Medellin.” When authorities made a move to crack down, Escobar made a leisurely escape in 1992, setting into motion the massive manhunt that led to his death a year later.

Guzman has also been jailed, but did not make such a public spectacle of it. When he was captured by counternarcotics officials in Guatemala in 1993 and sentenced to twenty years in a maximum security prison in·Jalisco, Guzman simply bought off almost the entire prison staff. While in jail, the drug lord made sure that he received preferential treatment from the guards, who allowed him to smuggle contraband into the prison. When it became clear that the U.S. was seeking to extradite him, Guzman bribed a handful of the prison staff to sneak him out in a laundry basket in 2001. He has been on the run ever since.

Pablo Escobar and Joaquin Guzman represent two very different methods and historical eras of the drug smuggling industry. While it is true that -- as the anonymous DEA official told Forbes -- Guzman exports cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine while Escobar only dealt cocaine, this is likely more a product of geography and history than anything else. Due to Mexico’s position as the criminal gateway into the U.S., market demand for drugs is much higher in the country and makes them more widely available.

Additionally, the 1990s saw a series of counternarcotics crackdowns in the Carribbean, which forced South American drug producers like Escobar to channel their shipments through an increasingly complicated set of corridors in Central America. This fragmentation accounts for the rise of Mexican cartels, which (unlike their Colombian counterparts) focus more of their energy on maintaining control of the entry “plazas” into the U.S. than on the acquisition of illicit substances.

So while Guzman was able to diversify his criminal portfolio more than Escobar, it is unclear whether this is due to his business savvy or to the evolution of the trade. Cocaine trafficking in Colombia in the 1980s was an entirely different ballgame from the modern day drug industry in Mexico.

In the end, determining which of the two deserves the title of “world's greatest outlaw” may rest on a simple test: how much longer Guzman is able to hide. Mexican and American authorities are currently offering rewards of two and five million dollars, respectively, for information leading to his capture, and officials in both countries regularly claim they are getting closer and closer to catching the fugitive. Against such a formidable operation, it may be just a matter of time before Guzman, like Escobar, dies in a hail of gunfire.

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