The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration now believes that Joaquìn Guzmàn, the notorious Mexican outlaw known as El Chapo, or shorty, has become the biggest drug lord ever.
“Chapo has a vast criminal enterprise and he has become the leading drug trafficker of all time,” says a senior U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official who regularly travels to Mexico and requested anonymity because of security concerns. “He is the godfather of the drug world.”
The DEA has come to believe that Guzmàn’s power now surpasses the influence and reach of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord who in the 1980s headed the Medellin Cartel, which was at the time responsible for much of the cocaine imported into the U.S. “Pablo’s business in Columbia was based on the exportation of cocaine,” says the senior DEA official. “With Chapo, he not only has the importation of cocaine, but marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine, and he is exporting them not only to the U.S. but to Asia and Europe.”
With the death of Osama Bin Laden, Guzmàn is now the most wanted man in the world, topping Forbes’ Most Wanted Fugitives list. He is believed to be hiding in the Sierra Madre mountains in the state of Durango. He leads the Sinaloa cartel and has evaded capture since 2001, when he escaped from a Mexican prison in a laundry cart after Mexican courts ruled he could be extradited to the U.S.
Guzmàn has extended his control over corridors in Mexico used to smuggle cocaine and marijuana into the U.S. during the bloody battle being waged by the Mexican army against the drug cartels. Mexican President Felipe Calderòn called in the army to directly crack down on the drug cartels when he took office in 2006, resulting in violence that has killed 34,000. Many of Guzmàn’s rivals have been weakened in the more than four-year battle and now concern is mounting in the U.S. government that whoever replaces Calderòn won’t keep up the vigorous fight, leaving Guzmàn even more powerful. “Chapo is going to get stronger if he is not arrested in the next year and a half,” said the senior DEA official, who added that Guzmàn is more powerful today than he was two or three years ago.
The U.S. government has indicted Guzmàn and placed a $5 million bounty on his head, but Guzmàn protects himself by bribing top Mexican officials and using generous donations to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the people who live in areas in which he operates. Musicians in Mexico sing folk songs about him.
The arrest in March of the father-in-law of Guzmàn’s son gives an indication of the kind of cash at Guzmàn’s disposal. Victor Manuel Felix, a Sinaloa cartel moneyman, was captured in an operation in Mexico and Ecuador with a half a ton of cocaine and $500,000 of cash. In 2008 Mexican soldiers found $26 million in cash stashed in carton boxes that is believed to have belonged to Guzmàn’s Sinaloa cartel. Forbes estimates that Guzmàn is a billionaire. He is said to live lavishly and enjoys collecting expensive toys like motorcycles and even small planes.
Guzmàn has long relied on a network of sophisticated tunnels to move his product into the U.S. The latest of these tunnels to be revealed ran between Tijuana and Otay Mesa, Calif. It was six football fields long and the Sinaloa cartel built it with rail and air condition at a price of some $3 million.
Pablo Escobar was killed in a gun battle in 1992 by Colombian police. But in Mexico there are doubts that Chapo Guzmàn will suffer a similar fate. A big Mexican news magazine recently dubbed him “The Untouchable.”