Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” was once the head of Mexico’s most powerful organized crime group, the Sinaloa Cartel. His ability to simultaneously co-opt public officials, attack enemies’ strongholds, and find creative ways to get his drugs to market has made him a legend in the underworld.
Before his capture in February 2014, Guzmán was the most wanted man in the Western Hemisphere. He escaped once again from prison, crawling through a tunnel, on July 11, 2015, prompting a massive manhunt in Mexico. On January 8, 2016, President Enrique Peña Nieto said via Twitter that the government had re-arrested the fugitive Sinaloa Cartel leader. A little over one year later, on January 19, 2017, Mexican authorities announced his extradition in a communique issued less than 24 hours before Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th US President.
El Chapo’s reign came to an end once and for all on February 12, 2019, when a US jury found him guilty on all 10 counts included in the federal indictment against him, including leading an ongoing criminal enterprise, which carries a life sentence in federal US prison without the possibility of parole.
Born in a small farming community in Badiraguato, Sinaloa state, Guzmán spent his childhood shuttling oranges to the market. With his uncle’s help, he moved into contraband and later coordinated large shipments of marijuana and finally cocaine, in Sinaloa state and later to the United States. He may have little formal education, but he has a Ph.D. in drug trafficking. Guzmán is known as a pioneer in the trade, having essentially leased an airplane hangar in Mexico City’s principal airport for years, and led the way in constructing tunnels beneath the US-Mexico border.
El Chapo’s career has also been marked by infighting and bloodshed. He split from the core group of Guadalajara-based traffickers in the 1990s and began a bloody fight with the Tijuana Cartel, also known as the Arellano Felix Organization, which ran the lucrative Tijuana trafficking corridor. After an attempt on his life in 1993, Guzmán fled to Guatemala, where he was arrested by the authorities and deported back to Mexico. From jail, he continued plying his trade, with his brother, Arturo Guzmán Loera, alias “El Pollo,” managing the business. His cohorts from Sinaloa, Arturo and Hector Beltran Leyva, regularly brought him suitcases of cash so he could grease the wheels of power inside the prison and continue his opulent lifestyle, including specially prepared meals and conjugal visits from his wife, girlfriends and prostitutes. His friend, ally and relative by marriage, Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, alias “El Azul,” made sure that Guzmán’s product got to the United States without interference from his rivals.
El Chapo Factbox
DOB: Unclear; some government agencies say 1954, others say 1957
Group: Sinaloa Cartel
Criminal Activities: International drug trafficking, money laundering
Status: In custody
Area of Operation: Mexico
Guzmán escaped prison in 2001, just as authorities were laying the groundwork for his extradition to the United States. He eluded capture for more than a decade by creating a sophisticated security system, allegedly basing himself in isolated, rural areas of Sinaloa and Durango.
While Chapo was on the run, there were a number of seeming close calls that later turned out be fabricated. In February 2012, Mexican authorities reported that they had come the closest ever to catching Guzmán. However, later reports indicated that the operation had never occurred, and that the false information may have been an effort to boost Calderon’s popularity in the run-up to the 2012 elections. In February 2013, authorities in Guatemala — the same country responsible for his jail stint in the 1990s — reported Guzmán’s possible death in a shootout, a report that was also found to be false. Numerous musicians have celebrated his ability to elude capture and undermine the authorities.
In the early hours of February 22, 2014, Guzmán was captured by Mexican Marines in a hotel in the Mexican beach resort city of Mazatlan. At the time of his arrest he was the most wanted criminal on the planet and had a $5 million reward on his head.
Despite pressure from US officials for his extradition nearly as soon as he was captured in February, tense US-Mexico relations have left in doubt whether the cartel boss will ever face justice in the United States.
On July 11, 2015, Mexico authorities reported that El Chapo has escaped from his maximum-security prison yet again. No laundry cart was reportedly involved this time, as was the case for his legendary escape in 2001. He apparently crawled through a tunnel that was 1.5 kilometers wide and led directly into his prison shower cell, according to reports. On January 8, 2016, Mexico’s president wrote on Twitter, “Mission accomplished: we have him. I would like to inform the Mexican people that Joaquin Guzmán Loera has been arrested.” On January 19, 2017, El Chapo was extradited to the United States, just hours before Donald Trump’s inauguration, in a move that spurred debate as to what message president Peña Nieto intended to send to the incoming US head of state.
After a three-month federal drug trafficking trial in the United States, El Chapo was found guilty in February 2019 on all 10 counts in the federal indictment against him including charges ranging from drug trafficking to money laundering and leading an ongoing criminal enterprise. He faces a mandatory minimum life sentence in federal US prison — likely in the so-called “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” or ADX Florence, the United States’ only supermax prison.
Before his arrest in 2014, Guzmán was widely considered the world’s biggest drug trafficker and among the most wanted criminals on the planet. With Chapo at the helm, the Sinaloa Cartel came to dominate the global cocaine market, and became a major player in the trafficking of heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana.
Guzmán’s immense fortune from drug trafficking — in 2009 he was included on the Forbes list of billionaires (he was later dropped from its rankings in 2013) — required a sophisticated money laundering system to legitimize the illicit funds.
Guzmán was allegedly based in rural parts of Sinaloa and Durango prior to his capture in 2014. However, while the drug lord was on the run rumors swirled that he was hiding out or operating in various countries, including Honduras, Argentina, Guatemala, Bolivia, and even the United States. Guzmán was eventually arrested in the beach resort city of Mazatlan, Sinaloa.
Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel is believed to have a presence in nearly every major city in the United States and Latin America. Within Mexico, the cartel is believed to operate in 17 states throughout the country.
Allies and Enemies
Under Guzmán’s watch, the Sinaloa Cartel waged a bloody turf war with its rival the Juarez Cartel during the mid-2000s for control of valuable drug trafficking routes near the US border. The Sinaloa Cartel emerged victorious, cementing its position as the foremost drug trafficking organization in Mexico.
Following a split with the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) in 2008, the cartel forged alliances with former rivals the Gulf Cartel and the Familia Michoacana. However, both the Gulf Cartel and the Familia Michoacan are shadows of their former selves, with many of their leaders either killed or captured.
Guzmán created the hemisphere’s largest drug cartel with many of those who helped in prison, including Esparragoza and the Beltran Leyva brothers. Guzmán has also spent a significant amount of time and effort cultivating support among Mexicans, especially in rural areas where contraband and drug trafficking is a way of life.
Guzmán’s family is deeply involved in trafficking and his battles with his rivals cost him his brother, Arturo, who was killed in prison in 2004 while Guzmán carried on a dispute with the Zetas; his son, Edgar Guzmán Lopez, who was killed in May 2008 in Culiacan, Sinaloa, amidst Joquin’s dispute with his former allies, the Beltran Leyva Organization; his longtime girlfriend from his time in jail, Zulema Hernandez, who was found in the trunk of a car in 2008, strangled to death and with the letter “Z” carved into her body, presumably by rival group the Zetas.
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the National Action Party (PAN) have long traded barbs, accusing each other of being beholden to Guzmán. The reality is that both may have factions allied to the trafficker, as do parts of the military and police throughout Mexico and other neighboring countries.
Guzmán’s stunning second escape from a maximum-security prison in July 2015 sparked an immediate, massive manhunt for the Sinaloa Cartel head. There is widespread suspicion of high-level official collusion, and the government has come under intense pressure to recapture Guzmán quickly, which they did on January 8, 2016. After Chapo’s extradition to the United States in early 2017, speculation swirled about whether or not the former kingpin would testify during his own trial, he never did. El Chapo will spend the rest of his natural life in prison.
But this did not mark the end of the Sinaloa Cartel, and will unlikely have any significant impact on the criminal map in Mexico, as the group carries on with El Mayo and Guzmán’s sons at the top of the organization. El Chapo’s sons are effectively under the wing of El Mayo as he allegedly tries to reestablish order among the country’s criminal groups as Mexico’s last true remaining drug capo.