By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Joaquin Guzmán Loera, aka El Chapo, ranks very high among the wealthiest gangsters who ever plied their nasty trade, very small among the short gangsters (El Chapo means Shorty), and very bloody among the most vicious. As head of the brutal Sinaloa drug cartel he gained international infamy. Captured and convicted multiple times in Mexico, this year in New York El Chapo underwent a three-month-long sensational trial involving over 50 witnesses on ten charges. After a week-long jury deliberation, he was found guilty on all charges including trafficking heroin and cocaine and conspiracy to commit murder. As this edition of The Eye is heading for publication, El Chapo is awaiting sentencing on June 25. His sentence is expected to be life imprisonment.
Reports of El Chapo’s childhood sound like the background one would expect for a future gangster. Born in April 1957 in La Tuna, Sinaloa, to an impoverished family, Guzmán Loera was said to have been abused, frequently beaten by his father, and required to drop out of school at an early age to work in the family criminal enterprises. He first job was as a low-level mover of contraband, but after he moved into drug trafficking he became known in the trade as clever, ambitious and brutal. He devised innovative ways for moving drugs across the US border, including the now infamous tunnels. He began trafficking larger and larger quantities – at one point leasing an airplane hangar to use for storage. Over a 30-year period he organized the transfer of tons of drugs from Central American countries to Mexico, and from there to the U.S. and Canada.
As his enterprise grew and became more vulnerable to law enforcement, he generously and effectively bribed everyone who had the right and responsibility to bring him to justice in many countries – even at the highest governmental levels. The recipients of his corrupt largesse included a past President of Mexico and the entire congress of Colombia. If bribery didn’t work, he eliminated human obstacles. He was notorious, even among other drug cartels, for murdering and burning the bodies of anyone who dared to interfere in his business. One of the best known of his victims was Catholic Cardinal Posadas Ocampo, who was murdered at an airport in Guadalajara. El Chapo regularly flaunted his gold-plated AK-47 rifle and his diamond-encrusted pistols, one of which had his initials carved into the handle.
In addition to the seriousness of his crimes, El Chapo is the stuff of legend due to his constant display of bravado and bizarre behavior. Before capture, his lifestyle included the ownership of many mansions and, perhaps inspired by Michael Jackson, a private zoo. He rivals Houdini as an escape artist. In 2001, he escaped prison in Mexico in a laundry basket. He eluded arrest for over a decade using creative evasion tactics – once escaping naked with one of his many mistresses –until 2014 when he was apprehended in Mazatlán by the Mexican military. A year later, however, he escaped prison again, this time through a tunnel under his shower stall. The US Drug Enforcement Agency had warned of an escape plan, and immediately put up a $5,000,000 reward; Mexico, embarrassed, added another $3,800,000 USD.
When he was recaptured, the Mexican government extradited him to the US – placing the burden of keeping him imprisoned on the US justice system. And a burden it is. El Chapo’s requests, such as more time to exercise in the detention facility, are immediately met with refusals that then require prosecutors, correctional staff and the judiciary to take action. One of his most recent ploys to tie up the justice system was a request he filed to “terminate” the attorney who represented him during his New York trial. No reason was given – and based on his long-term elimination of people whom he decided were expendable, the attorney no doubt deserves extra protection.
He turned his most recent trial into a circus. Among the scores of witnesses were his mistresses who, while testifying against him, sobbed and professed undying love for him. One day during the proceeding, El Chapo and his wife showed up wearing matching velvet smoking jackets. And when an actor who plays the part of El Chapo on a Netflix series about Mexican drug lords attended the trial to study his gestures, Guzmán posed and postured and smiled delightedly, basking in the attention.
Even while incarcerated, El Chapo was known to be directing major trafficking operations, earning millions of dollars, and throwing lavish parties. Wives, mistresses, and prostitutes were regular visitors to his Mexican cells. During one stint in a jail, a mariachi band showed up outside his cell window to serenade for many hours of the night. And lest you think he couldn’t possibly live the life fantastic in US facilities, think again. It was just revealed that, while thousands of refugees are being turned away at the US border, members of his family in Mexico were granted visas to visit him.
Although our colleague Kary Vannice argues that the difference between a gangster and a hero can depend on the perspective of the viewer, we challenge anyone to find a single redeeming quality of El Chapo that could be used to reclassify him as other than a violent predatory gangster.