SANTIAGO DE LOS CABALLEROS, Mexico — He was the barefoot son of a peasant who became one of the richest moguls in the world, a billionaire entrepreneur with a third-grade education. He controls a vast drug distribution empire that spans six continents, but he still carries his own AK-47. He is generous and feared, a mass murderer and a folk hero. He is a ghost who has become a legend.
In the fifth year of a terrible war in Mexico that has exhausted the military, consumed the presidency of Felipe Calderon and left more than 43,000 dead in drug violence, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the founder of the Sinaloa cartel, reigns supreme.
His pursuers compare him to Al Capone, Butch Cassidy or Osama bin Laden. But none of these gets it quite right. Guzman is the single largest supplier of illegal drugs to the United States, and though he is in hiding, he is not on the run.
Ten years after he escaped from prison in a laundry basket on the eve of his extradition to the United States, Chapo is more powerful than ever: His networks are deeper, his territory is expanding, and his supplies of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine are essentially undiminished, according to U.S. and Mexican agents and officials, who were grinding their teeth at the news that Guzman’s 22-year-old beauty queen wife was able to travel in August to a Los Angeles County hospital, where she gave birth to healthy twins.
Calderon, reportedly desperate to nail his nemesis and prove himself a winning commander in chief in an increasingly unpopular war that might cost his party the presidency, has raised the stakes to demand that Chapo be taken down before he leaves office next year.
As a sign of the intensified effort, Mexico now operates at least three full-time capture-kill units solely dedicated to ending the reign of Guzman, said officials with direct knowledge of the groups. These special operations teams — one each in the Mexican army, navy and federal police — have been vetted to work alongside agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who have supplied detailed intelligence about Guzman’s possible locations.
Calderon and his top law enforcement officials say they have come close to getting Guzman — within an hour or two — several times in the past two years.
Despite such assertions, Calderon has been dogged by perceptions among many Mexicans that his administration, especially his military, has gone easy on Guzman’s cartel, or even that it’s helping him, while it goes after his biggest rival, Los Zetas, a rising criminal power in the country.
“He’s protected by the government,” said Javier Valdez, a top editor of the Sinaloa-based journal Rio Doce, adding that he doesn’t think any urgent effort is underway to find Chapo.
Guzman, one of the most wanted criminals in North America, has proven impossible to catch — even as U.S. drones penetrate Mexican airspace, and Mexican security forces, supplied with sophisticated U.S. eavesdropping equipment, scan the ether for the sound of his encrypted voice. His pursuers suspect he is most likely in a mountain stronghold here in the Sierra Madre range of northwest Mexico, a hardscrabble backwater of Mexican hillbillies that gives new meaning to the words “poor” and “remote.”
Guzman was indicted on drug conspiracy charges in the United States, with the Justice Department putting a $5 million price on his head. Rumors of his whereabouts float through Interpol offices, Caribbean honky-tonks and Mexico’s Federal Police intelligence bunker, with recent unconfirmed sightings in a Buenos Aires condo, a Veracruz seafood joint and the streets of London.
“Of the Mexican drug trafficking organizations, the Sinaloa cartel has the broadest reach into Europe, Australia and Asia,” DEA intelligence chief Rodney Benson said in testimony before Congress this month.
Unlike the 1980s Colombian cocaine king Pablo Escobar, to whom he is often compared, Guzman is not flamboyant — or reckless. He is the hands-on CEO of Cocaine Inc., and, like fellow billionaire Warren Buffett, he is known to drive himself around in a battered pickup truck.
In the mountain towns of Sinaloa and the Golden Triangle region that is the Napa Valley of Mexico’s marijuana and heroin poppy industry, Guzman is a godfather figure. Locals don’t call the 5-foot-6 Guzman by his popular moniker “El Chapo,” or Shorty, but speak of him in whispers as “El Senor,” meaning “The Man” or “The Lord.”
At the outdoor market here in Santiago de los Caballeros, where the arrival of an outsider draws wary stares from young men with brand-new pickups and walkie-talkies, the CDs of narcocorrido bands venerate “The Lord of the Mountains” with songs such as “I am Joaquin.”
I am Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman
The one the government hunts and wants to lock up
They’ve hurt me before, but they should know
I'm not going back to that lonely jail cell
Life and freedom are too beautiful for that . . .
Facundo Sillas, a blue-eyed, 72-year-old cowboy in a white sombrero, said life in Guzman’s domain wasn’t bad as long as one followed El Senor’s simple dictum: “Either you behave,” Sillas said, “or you end up in a hole.”
As he spoke, sitting in the shady central plaza of Badiraguato, the county seat, another man interrupted to interrogate a Washington Post reporter. “What are you doing here? Are you a DEA agent?”
The message? Scram.
“If I were a betting man, I would say Chapo is not too far from where he was born. I have been in those mountains, and you could live there for centuries and never be found,” said Michael Vigil, former chief of international operations for the DEA.
In 2009, Hector Gonzalez, the Roman Catholic archbishop in neighboring Durango, announced that Guzman was “living nearby, and everyone knows it except the authorities.” Soon after, the bullet-ridden bodies of two Mexican military officers, suspected to have been working undercover, were found near the dirt-floor village where Gonzalez said Guzman was living. A message beside the bodies read “You’ll never get ‘El Chapo,’ not the priests, not the government.”
According to a 2009 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Mexico’s defense secretary, Guillermo Galvan, told Dennis C. Blair, then the Obama administration’s director of national intelligence, “that Chapo commands the support of a large network of informers and has security circles of up to 300 men that make launching capture operations difficult.”
Chapo moved around among 10 to 15 isolated ranches in the mountains, Galvan said. The arrival of any large military or police convoy on the single-track dirt roads would be quickly reported to Guzman by locals, whose loyalty has been secured through bribery and intimidation — and their deep aversion to outsiders and the government.
A helicopter assault is equally problematic. “He’d have 10 minutes of warning, and, poof, he’d be gone,” said a senior U.S. law enforcement officer in Mexico. Guzman’s men are also thought to wield an arsenal that includes shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles.
Guzman turned 54 this year, which is ancient for a drug lord in a brutal culture that believes it is better to live like a king for one year than grovel for a lifetime.
Drug-war scholars say Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel has benefited from Mexican security forces’ aggressive pursuit of the Zetas, because limited resources do not allow the forces to confront every criminal group with the same intensity. Although Guzman’s earnings are thought to derive primarily from drug trafficking, the business model of the Zetas relies heavily on kidnapping, human trafficking and extortion.
“Chapo moves a kilo of cocaine over the U.S. border practically every 10 minutes, so he doesn’t need to extort anyone,” said Mexican national security expert Raul Benitez.
Guzman’s dirty work tends to be less newsworthy.
The discovery this year of Mexico’s biggest mass graves in two regions of the country was a case in point. When authorities recovered 193 bodies from crude pits in a Zetas-controlled area in the northern border state of Tamaulipas, the crimes raised an international uproar, as many of the victims appeared to be innocent bus travelers and U.S.-bound migrants. The Mexican government flooded the region with troops and took dozens of Zetas suspects into custody.
In contrast, just a few weeks later, investigators found more than 220 decomposing bodies buried in the state of Durango, Guzman’s territory. That discovery drew little attention because the victims were said to be his rivals.
Although the Mexican government touts its efforts in the lowering of homicide rates in the border cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, many experts in Mexico say a major reason for the diminished body count is that Guzman’s forces are now in control there, rather than any security improvement wrested by Mexican authorities.
Adding to suspicions that Calderon’s administration has put more energy into going after the widely despised Zetas, whose defeat would bring greater political benefits, are allegations by Vicente Zambada, the son of Guzman’s top crime partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. The younger Zambada is facing federal drug-trafficking charges in Chicago. He claims DEA officials have been giving the Sinaloa cartel a free hand to smuggle narcotics in exchange for information about rival drug lords. DEA agents acknowledge meeting with Zambada but deny any promise of immunity.
Then there’s the possibility that removing Guzman will unleash an even bigger bloodbath across Mexico, as rivals rush to fill an enormously lucrative power vacuum. U.S. drug agents warily agree. “It will be a zoo,” one said.