Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman Loera, or “El Chapo” as he is better known, is a short, reserved, and on the surface, unremarkable guy, but he became the most powerful drug lord in Mexico, and a sort of folk hero through sheer determination.
In his book ‘Zero Zero Zero,’ Roberto Saviano explores El Chapo’s meteoric rise to power. starting with his humble beginnings raised on “beatings and farmwork” in a poor family of ranchers in a small village in the Sierra Madre mountains of Sinaloa, Mexico, all the way up to his assent to the top of the criminal underworld.
“Chinese merchants brought opium to Sinaloa back in the 1800s …. And since then, Sinaloa has been full of opium,” Saviano explains.
El Chapo was essentially born into the drug trade in Sinaloa, as were countless other families. His entire family worked the fields cultivating poppies to be processed into opium.
Growing up, El Chapo was surrounded by a fiction that the illicit drug trade creates to mask its roots: School children are taught that the region exports fish, meat, and produce — but all the while, their daily lives revolved around the drug trade.
“If his school has walls, it’s because Sinaloa’s grandfathers cultivated marijuana and opium,” Saviano writes.
Like many of the children of Sinaloa, El Chapo started contributing to the family business from an early age, bringing lunch to his older relatives while they worked the poppy fields.
Saviano cites that one kilo of opium gum, processed from the poppies, was worth 8,000 Mexican pesos, or 700 dollars today. The economic incentive is overwhelming for poor farmers, who cultivate the cash crop all over Sinaloa’s 160 million acres.
Also like the other children, El Chapo dreamed of escaping the poverty his family had known for generations. At the age of 20, El Chapo went to work for the Sinaloa cartel, smuggling drugs across the US border.
Saviano explains El Chapo’s management style as being simple and effective: “If you want to get to the top, you can’t take pity if someone makes a mistake, you can’t back down when underlings make excuses for not keeping to the schedule. If there was a problem, El Chapo eliminated it. If a peasant was enticed by someone with a fatter wallet, El Chapo eliminated him.”
El Chapo did as he was told, and within a few years he found himself close to the top of the cartel. Unlike his peers, El Chapo did not flaunt his wealth or power. This would prove to be vital to his survival and later, his success as a drug baron.
When “El Padrino,” the former head of the Sinaloa cartel was arrested, El Chapo didn’t stage a coup or make any visible power grab. Instead, he quietly moved to Guadalajara, near the border with the US and took over operations from his former boss.
“El Chapo remained in the shadows, and from there he governed his rapidly growing empire …. People would say they’d spotted him, but it was true only one time out of a hundred,” Saviano explains.
Instead, El Chapo turned his attentions to strategic matters, figuring out how to get drugs into the US by any available means, be it cars, tankers, trains, planes, boats, or even submarines. At one point, the Sinaloa cartel even engaged in a smuggling opperation that was disguised as a humanitarian aide project.
In 1993, 15,000 feet of tunnel was discovered, which was intended to connect Tijuana to San Diego, another one of El Chapo’s initiatives to further streamline his illegal industry.
Then, on May 24, 1993, hit men from a rival cartel from Tijuana waited at the Guadalajara airport for El Chapo’s white Mercury Grand Marquis, which Saviano says was a ‘must’ for drug barons of the time. The hit men spotted the Mercury and unloaded.
“The shoot-out left seven men dead, among them Cardinal Posadas Ocampo, while El Chapo managed to escape, unscathed,” says Saviano. “It was only recently that the FBI declared the killing a tragic case of mistaken identity.”
Shortly after the shooting, on June 9, 1993, El Chapo was arrested and later transferred to a maximum security prison, Puente Grande, in 1995. Saviano describes how El Chapo “continued to manage his affairs from prison with scarcely a hitch.”
But after eight years of running his empire from a jail cell, El Chapo finally decided he needed to be on the outside due to, of all things, a change in American extradition policy.
“The Supreme Court had approved a law making it much easier to extradite narcos to the US. American incarceration would mean the end of everything,” Saviano explains.
So on January 19, 2001, one of the handsomely bribed prison guards escorted El Chapo to freedom.
“Francisco Camberos Rivera, known as El Chito, or the Silent one — opened the door to El Chapo’s cell and helped him climb into a cart of dirty laundry,” Saviano writes.
At this point, El Chapo was becoming a national folk hero, much like Al Capone or John Dillinger during prohibition. He was renowned for his cleverness and made more interesting by his media-shy persona.
El Chapo left the much more visible, and dirty, work to his subordinates. Territorial wars were carried out by his lieutenants, such as Edgar Valdez Villarreal, or “La Barbie,” named for his blond hair and blue eyes.
Savino describes how La Barbie “liked women, and women liked him. He loved Versace clothes and fancy cars” — quite a departure from El Chapo’s conservative image.
It wa La Barbie who carried out violent executions and coordinated the cartel’s attacks on its rival, Los Zetas. He presided over a bloody war between his Sinaloa-backed militia, Los Negros, and the Juarez cartel, during which El Chapo’s own brother was killed.
But despite this very personal blow, El Chapo remained behind the scenes and didn’t take any rash action.
Saviano cites that the cartels were spending $US5 million a month in 2011 to bribe officials, police, and military personnel to keep quiet and not make any significant arrests while a drug war raged and blood spilled from both civilian and cartel sources.
El Chapo is suspected of having his rivals arrested at times, which shows the strength of his influence and his restraint in pursuing enemies.
“El Chapo didn’t believe in showing his rage. He saw no point. He punished those who deserved it with death, but even when applying this definitive sentence, he didn’t allow any emotion to shine through,” Saviano writes.
El Chapo’s most recent arrest, and the escape thereafter, again proves the immense power drug lords wield in Mexico. El Chapo’s escape went off flawlessly, and his imprisonment wasn’t a detriment to his effectiveness as a leader at all.
El Chapo became the success he is today because he was willing to live quietly and stay focused. He didn’t get caught up in the million-dollar parties, or other indulgent behaviours we associated with drug dealers. He is successful exactly because he is willing to pass time unglamourously in a jail cell, or a cheap Sinaloa apartment, or a cart full of prisoner’s dirty laundry.
The US spends billions on illegal drugs every year, and the Mexican cartels have positioned themselves to supply this market. Even if El Chapo was taken out of power, another drug baron or cartel would rise in his place, and his rivals are considerably more viloent. In this way it is easy to see El Chapo as the lesser of two evils, or even a necessary evil, despite the fact that he is a calculating killer of men.
As the drug war rolls on without an end in sight, and the wealth it generates continues to bend the institutions sworn to police it, the lines of good and evil become blurred, but one thing is for sure — El Chapo is a business man.
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