When Colombian cartels went into decline, Joaquin Guzman was in Mexico waiting to pick up the pieces
by DAVID GAGNE
U.S. prosecutors have filed a memorandum detailing the lengthy criminal career of recently extradited Mexico drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, a unique look at the case the U.S. government is preparing against the man dubbed “the most notorious drug trafficker in the world.”
Following El Chapo’s long-awaited extradition to the United States on Jan. 19, 2017, prosecutors from the Eastern District of New York released a memorandum documenting his stunning transformation from the child of poor Mexican farmers to a drug trafficker with enough money and power to crack Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people.
Before Guzmán turned “El Chapo” into a household name, he went by a different moniker — “El Rapido,” or The Fast One. He earned that nickname because of his knack for quickly moving drug shipments across the U.S.-Mexico border and getting the proceeds back to his Colombian overlords, the memorandum states.
Chapo’s talents enabled him to begin negotiating drug shipments directly with the Colombian cartels, which prosecutors say grew his profits and his status in Mexico. He made alliances with some of Mexico’s biggest drug traffickers, and went to war with others.
The memorandum describes how a battle for the northern border city of Tijuana in the early 1990s pitted Chapo and his longtime ally, Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo,” against the powerful Arellano Félix organization.
The bloody battle put a bulls-eye on Chapo, who was captured for the first time in Guatemala in 1993. He would continue to build his budding drug empire from jail before making his first escape in 2001.
In the ensuing frenzy to capture El Chapo, the up-and-coming kingpin “created an army of heavily-armed body guards and fortified his hideaways with military-grade weapons,” the memorandum states. “Guzman also established a complex communications network to allow him to speak covertly with his growing empire without law enforcement detection.”
El Chapo’s increasingly sophisticated outfit coincided with changes in Colombian extradition and U.S. anti-narcotics laws that would help shift the center of drug trafficking power from Colombia to Mexico. The stricter application of these laws forced Colombian drug traffickers to cede control over U.S. distribution networks to their Mexican counterparts, the memorandum says.
And El Chapo, his characteristic business acumen as sharp as ever, took full advantage of this new-found access to the lucrative U.S. market.
“These changes enabled Guzman to exponentially increase his profits to staggering levels,” the memorandum states.
Chapo used his riches to consolidate power in Mexico before pushing south. He extended the Sinaloa Cartel’s influence in Central America and sent emissaries to Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela to negotiate with traffickers further down the supply chain, the memorandum says.
With El Chapo at the helm, the Sinaloa Cartel’s expansion wasn’t limited to the Western Hemisphere. To meet the growing U.S. demand for new types of drugs, El Chapo looked further afield. “Guzman established sources of supply for the precursor chemicals for the production of methamphetamine in Africa and Asia, including in China and India,” the memorandum says.
While Chapo’s success is often attributed to his ability to cut deals with other criminal actors and corrupt government officials, he was not above using violence to crush his enemies.
“In addition to his cadre of armed guards, Guzmán himself was known for carrying a gold plated AK-47 and a diamond-encrusted .45 mm handgun,” the memorandum states.
“Guzman also employed ‘sicarios,’ or ‘assassins,’ who carried out thousands of acts of violence, including murders, assaults, kidnappings, torture and assassination at his direction, to promote and enhance his prestige, reputation and position within the Sinaloa Cartel and to protect the Cartel against challenges from rivals.”
The memorandum singles out El Chapo as one of the principle instigators of the drug war in the 2000s and early 2010s that sent homicide rates in Mexico soaring. The Sinaloa Cartel was engaged in “open warfare” against the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel in the early 2000s, and in 2007 began to wrest control of Juárez from the city’s eponymous cartel.
“The causes of these wars can be traced, in part, to Guzman’s provocation,” the memorandum states.
Indeed, a 2012 indictment issued by the El Paso Division of the U.S. federal court in the Western District of Texas alleges that El Chapo and El Mayo supplied a sicario network known as “Gente Nueva,” or New People, with money and weapons to fight on behalf of Sinaloa during the war for Juárez.
However, the deadly force of the cartel’s hit squads were just as often turned inwards. In addition to doing battle with the armed wing of rival cartels, the El Paso indictment states, they were used to enforce discipline and punish perceived acts of disloyalty among Sinaloa allies.
The huge sums of money Chapo was taking in necessitated that he oversee what the memorandum calls “a vast money laundering apparatus.” While the memorandum does not give specifics on Chapo’s money laundering operations, a 2014 indictment from the Southern District of Florida gives an idea of the scale of the enterprise. The indictment lists a total of 92 wire transfers conducted by associates of El Chapo between 2003 and 2007, with each transfer consisting of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The brazenness with which his associates moved drug money around is stunning. To cite just one example, they made 11 separate transfers within a three-day span in June 2006 that amounted to over $1 million. Many of the transfers were made at the same money exchange office in Mexico and sent to a Bank of America account in Oklahoma City.
A separate indictment from the Eastern District of New York suggests that this five-year period was the most prolific of Chapo’s long and storied criminal career. The indictment presented 84 cases in which Chapo and El Mayo directed cocaine and/or heroin shipments into the United States, many of which were multi-ton loads.
Seventy of those shipments were sent between 2003 and 2007, the largest of which contained a remarkable 19,000 kilograms of cocaine.
In total, the memorandum alleges that El Chapo reaped some $14 billion in illegal proceeds over the course of his drug trafficking career.
In early 2014, Chapo was finally tracked down and arrested in the resort town of Mazatlán in his home state of Sinaloa. According to the memorandum, by that point his domination of the cocaine trade in the Western Hemisphere was nearly complete.
“At the time of his arrest, Guzman had control of most of the western hemisphere’s cocaine transportation and distribution network from South America to as far north as Canada,” the memorandum states.
As is well known by now, Chapo escaped prison in dramatic fashion for a second time in July 2015, and was recaptured six months later. His recent extradition ended a lengthy legal battle on the part of his lawyers to keep him in Mexico.
InSight Crime analysis
The memorandum, which was filed to justify keeping Chapo detained prior to and during his trial, paints a picture of a domineering drug lord with seemingly limitless power.
“These last few decades have shown that Guzman’s influence knows no bounds,” the memorandum boldly declares.
It’s certainly hard to argue that El Chapo wasn’t the most powerful drug trafficker of his day, or that his connections didn’t reach across continents and into the highest levels of the Mexican state.
But it’s just as easy to fall into hyperbole when it comes to El Chapo, whose status as a mythical figure and counterculture icon grew exponentially following his second prison escape and secret meeting with U.S. actor Sean Penn and Mexican soap star Kate del Castillo. That mythology can make it hard to accurately judge Chapo’s real impact on the drug trade.
Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope, for one, doubts the U.S. prosecutors’ claim that Chapo amassed $14 billion from the drug trade.
Hope suspects the figure was taken from U.S. estimates of how much cocaine the Sinaloa Cartel trafficked during Chapo’s 25-year criminal career. But in addition to that number being “arbitrary,” as Hope says, the logic behind it fails to take into account how the Sinaloa Cartel operates.
As InSight Crime has repeatedly pointed out, the cartel more closely resembles a federation of allied drug traffickers than a monolithic structure with a single chain of command. No one, not even Chapo, has or has had full control over the Sinaloa Cartel, and thus no one person is responsible for all of its revenue streams.
There appear to be other examples in the memorandum of this blurring between El Chapo the man and the Sinaloa Cartel as a whole. While many observers believed Chapo’s influence within the cartel had already started to decline prior to his 2014 arrest, U.S. prosecutors suggest he was still at the peak of his powers.
The assertion that he maintained a near-monopoly on the cocaine trade likely has more to do with the Sinaloa Cartel’s singular dominance than Chapo’s personal authority. The fact that the cartel’s operations were largely unaffected after his arrest shows how little it relied on Chapo to keep things running smoothly.
Chapo’s prosecution nonetheless promises to offer an unprecedented look into the true extent of the drug lord’s power.
“The government will rely on the testimony of a large coterie of cooperating witnesses, including dozens of witnesses who have had face-to-face dealings with Guzman, to prove Guzman’s power, corruption and violence within the Sinaloa Cartel,” the memorandum says.
These witnesses — which include “numerous Colombian Cartel leaders” — are expected to attest to every aspect of Chapo’s involvement in the drug trade, starting in the late 1980s and continuing up through the present day.
However, just how much information Chapo will offer to U.S. authorities about his drug networks and links to Mexican officials remains a mystery.