Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

World's biggest 'narco' nabbed

Luxurious life on run was stuff of legend

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Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán was captured by Mexican marines and U.S. federal agents in the beach resort town of Mazatlan.

MEXICO CITY -- From his naming on the Forbes magazine list of the world's richest billionaires, to his frequent supposed sightings and magical escapes, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán has been a larger-than-life drug lord who reached mythical proportions in Mexican "narco" folklore.

He rose from a simple low-level trafficker from Sinaloa, the cradle of Mexico's opium and marijuana trade, to become the world's most powerful drug lord and the man who supplied more illegal drugs to North America than anyone else on Earth.

For Mexicans, the capture of Guzmán, reported Saturday to have occurred in a joint operation by Mexican marines and U.S. federal agents in the Sinaloan coastal city of Mazatlán, is somewhat akin to Colombia's killing of Pablo Escobar -- or even the U.S. elimination of Osama bin Laden.

His luxurious life on the run was the stuff of legend. More than once, he was reported to have entered a fancy restaurant, ordered cellphones confiscated, dined lavishly, then picked up everyone's cheque.

So apparently untouchable was he, his young beauty queen wife travelled uncontested by authorities to Los Angeles to give birth to twin girls in 2011.

In recent years, Guzmán extended the operations of his Sinaloa cartel to an estimated 50 countries across Latin America, Africa and Europe, even hooking up with one of the most notorious Italian mafias, the Ndrangheta.

"This gives us the dimension of who was 'El Chapo' Guzmán," said José Reveles, author of several books on Mexican drug-trafficking.

Given Guzmán's folk hero status, the constant rumors of his presence across borders and time zones, and his ability to bribe local officials to look the other way, it was difficult for some officials not to accord Guzmán a grudging respect.

Guillermo Valdés, the former head of Mexico's National Security and Investigation Center who wrote a book on his country's drug trade, called Guzmán an exceptional leader -- a "business genius."

"I think that 'El Chapo' is a person with a leadership capacity and a strategic vision that the other narcos don't have, and they recognize that," Valdés told the Spanish newspaper El Pais. "He's a very intelligent person with a great capacity for listening. With a great ability to seduce people, as well as a large imagination... and creativity."

The U.S. government offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest. The Mexican government was offering a reward of 30 million pesos, or about US$2.3 million. There were many reported near misses, including a supposed appearance in Baja California in 2012, days before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in the region.

There is some disagreement over Guzmán's actual birth date, but the U.S. State Department puts it at Dec. 25, 1954, making him 59 years old. Interpol lists him as 56. The U.S. government lists him at 5-8 and 165 pounds, but others say he is about 5-6, hence his nickname "El Chapo," or "Shorty."

To many Mexicans, guessing Guzmán's whereabouts had become a popular and macabre parlor game -- a kind of cartel "Where's Waldo?" Mexican security officials, meanwhile, conducted numerous searches in vain, contributing to the mystique of bad man as wily trickster -- and burnishing his reputation as a folk antihero.

Many other Mexicans not seduced by Guzmán's outlaw image still believed the Sinaloa cartel was a "businesslike" operation that didn't prey upon innocents as much as other cartels like the Knights Templar, famous for its extensive extortion racket in the state of Michoac°n; or the Zetas gang, which has terrorized regular people with extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, and which has a penchant for killing that seems, at times, to be unmoored from any sort of human scruples.

Yet it was Guzmán's decision to move into territory controlled by those other groups that led to some of the most bloody fighting in the last three years in states that had until then been relatively peaceful.

Guzmán was born in Badiraguato, an isolated municipality in Sinaloa, the Pacific Coast state notorious for its untameable badlands and multigenerational web of drug producers and smugglers. He grew up poor, working on his grandfather's farm, and was reportedly adamant about never returning to the life of a Mexican peasant.

A former mistress, Zulema Hernandez, told writer Julio Scherer long ago Guzmán was kicked out of the house by an abusive father. He is believed to have left school after the third grade.

Like many in Sinaloa, Guzmán had family members with connections to the drug trade. In his case, it was Pedro Avila Perez, a founder of the Sinaloa cartel, which had long grown and distributed Mexican marijuana and heroin, but by the 1980s branched out into smuggling Colombian cocaine into the U.S.

Guzmán got his start overseeing drug production on local farms. He then began handling the planes, boats and trucks used to smuggle South American cocaine into Mexico.

By 1989, deaths and arrests, plus good luck and ambition, had put Guzmán and his cousin, Héctor Palma, at the top of the cartel sector that moved as much as 24 tons of cocaine into the U.S. each month. But Guzmán's power was challenged by a faction led by the Arellano Félix family, based in Tijuana. Guzmán sent dozens of gunmen to attack the Arellanos at a party in Puerto Vallarta in 1992, killing nine people.

Less than a year later, the Arellanos sent gunmen to ambush Guzmán at the Guadalajara airport, but instead killed the cardinal of Guadalajara, Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo. Much about the shooting remains unclear, but one theory holds that the bishop was mistaken for Guzmán.

The death of the bishop sent shock waves throughout Mexico and beyond. The Mexican government had long been viewed as lax in its punishment of drug lords, if not occasionally complicit with them, particularly with Guzmán, who was said to enjoy protection from some of the country's top law enforcement officials.

Public pressure forced the government to crack down. Guzmán was arrested in Guatemala a couple of weeks after the shooting.

He was transferred to a maximum security federal prison in Guadalajara, where he lived comfortably. But when faced with extradition to the U.S., he apparently decided to flee.

On Jan. 19, 2001, the State Department says Guzmán escaped "allegedly with the assistance of prison officials."

He emerged, apparently, as a wizened, battle-tested CEO eager to prove he was still on top of his game. As the Mexican federal government got more serious about fighting the drug war, Guzmán relied more on corrupt local officials for protection and probably benefited from the largess of wealthy Colombian traffickers who saw his operation as the most stable and well-managed of the Mexican cartels.


-- Los Angeles Times


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2014 A6

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