Bandos, Bribes, and Billions: The El Chapo Story

Whether you see him as the billionaire drug lord, or the robin hood of his people, El Chapo Guzman is an interesting character. To attempt to understand the complicated man and how he became one of the richest men in the world, you must first delve into the facts and myths that surround public enemy number one. El Chapo Guzman evaded the police of multiple countries for decades until ultimately he was captured in 2014. From his humble beginnings, to his luxurious lifestyle, Guzman has become an epitome of terror as well as a beacon of hope for Sinaloa’s youth.

Joaquin Guzman Loera, better known by his nickname El Chapo (which doesn’t have anything to do with machetes or decapitating but actually means ‘shorty’ in spanish) was born into a dirt poor family from La Tuna, Badiraguato, Sinaloa, Mexico. His father was a cattle rancher, and took care of Guzman’s incredibly large family. His father, like many poor and overworked parents, turned to his belt as a form of discipline. In a study performed by Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) research indicates that males exposed to domestic violence as children are more likely to engage in domestic violence as adults, and his biographers often attribute his father as the source of Guzman’s use of brutality. Guzman was beaten so severely that he often didn’t go home at night and instead slept on the streets. Although it’s been reported that he would return to his house to defend his younger siblings from the beatings.

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Guzman’s father is rumored to have doubled as not only a cattle rancher, but also an opium poppy farmer. Guzman knew of his fathers second job, and also noticed that he wasn’t coming home with extra profits, spending it all on liquor instead. Guzman soon became tired of this, and took matters into his own hands. At the ripe age of 14 El Chapo, with the help of friends, planted his first marijuana plantation. By the time he was 15 El Chapo was supporting his family.

Guzman’s father did not like this and kicked him out of the house, but with the help of his uncle, Pedro Aviles Perez (who was an infamous drug lord and helped pioneer Mexican drug trafficking), Guzman turned to a much more lucrative lifestyle. Through his uncle’s connections, Guzman began working for the Guadalajara, then the most powerful cartel in Mexico.His direct response was Hector Palma, who became a role model and eventually a very close friend of Guzman’s. Guzman despite only being 5’6 (which is how he earned his nickname) was known for his ferocity and made it very clear he was not a man to be crossed. Those who helped Guzman at the time reported that when a shipment was late, Guzman would simply shoot the smuggler. Word quickly spread to the top of the cartel of the ruthless pawn who killed anyone that crossed him.

Felix Gallardo, who was the head of the Guadalajara Cartel at the time, wanted Guzman to work for him directly and Guzman soon climbed the ranks of the organization to become the head of logistics for the cartel. In the 1980’s the majority of drugs were shipped by Colombian cartels, and Mexican cartels were just the middle men. The U.S realized this and started to crack down on the Colombian cartels. This allowed Mexican cartels to take over more of the industry.

What they didn’t know, was that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) knew about the Mexican cartels involvement and decided to place multiple informants in Mexico. One of those informants Enrique Camarena Salazar started working with the Guadalajara Cartel. In 1984, Camarena tipped off Mexican authorities of a marijuana plantation owned by the cartel, it was raided and destroyed. Gallardo assumed that Camarena was involved, and had him tortured and killed. The DEA was outraged, and searched for Gallardo for 5 years until they captured him in 1989.

While Gallardo was in prison, he made the decision to split the cartel into three factions to attempt to distribute the work. Gallardo appointed Guzman as the head of one of these three cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel. This new responsibility made Guzman rich beyond his wildest dreams. He owned dozens of houses all over Mexico where he would stash drugs, weapons, and piles and piles of money. Guzman regularly moved 35 tons or more of cocaine and marijuana over the Mexican border by foot or by plane. He did so by creating elaborate underground tunnels that took his smugglers to the United States, a pretty impressive feat for a man with a third grade education.

As well as tunnel systems and flights, Guzman would have cocaine smuggled in chilli pepper cans that were taken by train to the states, and in return he would receive trains full of briefcases of cash. While Guzman grew filthy rich,the Tijuana corridor (that was created when the Guadalajara Cartel split) ran into many problems including the arrest of Javier Caro Payan who was a high ranking member of the corridor. Guzman was concerned about the well-being of the organization sent one of his right hand men to talk to the Tijuana corridor about their future. Before Guzman’s associate even had a chance to sit down with them,Ramon Arellano Felix, who was the head of the corridor along with his brothers, shot and killed him. The Arellano Felix brothers had the remaining members of their victim’s families killed, so that Guzman would have no idea that he was dead.

Though they could not hide their motives for long. The Arellano Felix brothers hired a con man to infiltrate Guzman from the inside. As their victim they chose Hector “El Guero” Palma. Palma who had been a long time and well respected member of the Guadalajara cartel prior to the split had become extremely close with Guzman and was very influential in his rise to power. The con man was small time drug dealer Enrique Rafael Clavel Moreno, who prior to that job was not affiliated with a cartel.

What happened next sounds straight out of The Godfather. The Arellano Felix brothers’ plan was to have Palma’s wife seduced by Clavel, so they could drain Palma’s bank accounts and hopefully learn some information in the process. As crazy as it sounds, it worked. Somehow Palma’s wife was convinced to withdraw about 7 million in U.S dollars.

That same night, Clavel beheaded her and sent the head in a box to Palma, and then proceeded to kill Palma’s 4 and 5 year old children by throwing them off a bridge. Palma retaliated by ordering an unsuccessful hit on Clavel once he was in prison. This happened in 1989, and by 1992 tensions had built to an all time high between the two “ally” cartels. During this time, there was a small San Diego based gang with known ties to the Tijuana corridor. In the early months of 1992 the gang known as Calle Treinta captured six of Guzman’s men in San Diego, drove them to Tijuana, and executed them there. Not long after this attack, a car bomb went off outside one of Guzman’s compounds.

No one was hurt, but he was now fully aware that retaliation was necessary. Guzman responded with a gruesome slaughter of nine of the Arellano Felix brothers closest associates, including their lawyers and family members. This bloodbath was too blatant to ignore by the Mexican police force. They created a special task force to find those responsible and bring them to justice. This was when Guzman’s influence took over. The task force was disbanded as soon as it was brought to light that Guzman had bribed members of the task force up to 10 million US dollars.

Guzman’s control over Mexican police would become infamous in the years to follow. Though at the time Guzman wasn’t charged for the murder, the Arellano Felix brothers knew he was responsible. They hired gunman to assassinate Guzman by shooting a van he was travelling in with Ak-47’s. Guzman somehow managed to escape the assassination attempt unharmed and with the help of more police that he had bribed off, he hid out under an Alias. In the months to come, there were multiple failed assassination attempts on Guzman ordered by the Arellano Felix brothers, and vice versa.

Until one day Francisco Javier Arellano Felix was at Guadalajara International Airport and was tipped off that Guzman was waiting for a flight in the parking lot. Acting quickly, Francisco Javier ordered one last assault on Guzman. He ordered 3 Jeeps full of about 20 men to open fire on the Mercedes that was thought to be containing Guzman. The men opened fire with assault rifles and fired upwards of 1,000 rounds into the Mercedes. While they were correct that Guzman was in the parking lot awaiting a flight, they were unaware of the fact that he was watching the entire scene unfold from a safe distance in his Buick, until he could escape in a taxi after the attack.

So who was in the Mercedes? The Cardinal and Archbishop of Guadalajara. The death of such a high profile religious figure brought outrage to Mexico and the rest of the world. The Mexican government offered 5 million dollar rewards for anyone involved in the killing. Scared that he may be caught, Guzman traveled from city to city under the alias Jorge Ramos Perez. Guzman planned to travel to Guatemala and live there at least until the case had calmed down.

Through a series of bribes he ended up safely travelling across the border, but during his escape he had bribed a Guatemalan military officer (upwards of 1.2 million dollars) that happened to be an informant. The informant alerted Guatemalan police, and El Chapo Guzman was captured in a hotel near the border of Guatemala. The total sentence was over 20 years in high security prison. The charges included possession of firearms, drug trafficking, and he was even pinned for the murder of Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, though he was later found not guilty of this crime.

Though 20 years in prison would be hell for the average person, El Chapo Guzman was not the average person. When he was arrested, the Sinaloa Cartel was the most powerful drug organization in the world, and his influence was not left at the gate of the prisons. It was reported that the security guards acted as servants to Guzman, and his associates would often bring briefcases full of cash for the guards to ensure this treatment. Women often visited him, and he had cocaine brought in for him to plant on inmates he didn’t like. There was no evidence to support that while Guzman was behind bars he had any less control over the drug world than when he was a free man, and the Sinaloa Cartel continued to grow.

Even though his stay in jail was more comparable to a suite, Guzman grew tired of operating the cartel behind bars. Through an extremely well thought out plan, Guzman escaped on January 19, 2001 from Puente Grande maximum security prison. Guzman escaped by jumping into a laundry cart that was then transported by van by a maintenance worker. Guzman paid more than 78 people to aid his escape, including the maintenance worker who drove Guzman from the prison, the prison director, and even the Jalisco police so he had a jump on federal police before they could even hear about his escape. Following Guzman’s escape, he became hungry for more power in Mexico.

Though it is apparent Guzman had made enemies he also had many allies, including the Juarez Cartel. Although it wasn’t long before Guzman decided that he wanted control of their portion of the trade as well. Even though they were in an alliance at the time, Guzman had the leader of the Juarez Cartel killed. By ordering this attack, Guzman was the first leader to break an alliance between Cartels. Even with the death of their leader, the Juarez Cartel did not back down in the face of El Chapo, in fact they did the opposite. The two cartels started a war.

For the next decade more than 50,000 people were killed because of the conflict. Like all of El Chapo’s interactions, this one seemed to have some sort of suspicious undertones. The war lasted until the end of 2010, when the numbers came out that of the 53,000 arrests that were made in relationship to the Cartel wars, only 1,000 of those arrests were members of the Sinaloa Cartel. Allegations were made claiming the police force was letting the Sinaloa Cartel win the feud on purpose, and although nothing was done about it, the arrests of the Juarez Cartel made it so El Chapo could easily takeover. Whether he paid the force to have them look the other way when it came to his men or not hasn’t been proven, but with his history of bribery it isn’t a far fetched idea. With the arrests of his rivals El Chapo was free to take over whatever territory he wanted, the Sinaloa Cartel ended the war almost untouched.

For four years Guzman evaded police while simultaneously leading the most powerful organized crime family in the world. These four years El Chapo lived like a king. While he was used to having money by now, Guzman finally had the chance to sit back and enjoy it without any competition. El Chapo’s wealth has been the subject of myths for years. Government officials have reported ridiculous luxuries in Guzman’s raided homes.

Including solid gold firearms which were never fired, exotic pets such as lions and white tigers (which were “cared for in the grandest fashion”), An art collection worth over 25 million dollars, multiple briefcases full of 1/2 a million dollars each supposedly pre-packaged for deals, and even buttons that turned his bathtub into a tunnel that led to his next safe house. There are reportedly 27 more houses with the same amount of money in them. Guzman lived his last free years on top of the world, but he didn’t keep all of that money for himself. His humble beginnings were a huge impact on his spending. You could easily compare his flamboyant purchases to that of an NFL player who never had money growing up.

Also he seems to sympathize with the poor families of Sinaloa, often giving back. There are at least four examples of El Chapo going into Mexican restaurants and paying for the entire restaurants bill. The stories all share the same basic information, a group of armed men enter the restaurant and lock the doors. They note to not take alarm, then announce that their boss is a very powerful man and would like to eat at the restaurant, concluding their speech by saying that he will pay for all of their meals so they need not ask for the bill. Then El Chapo enters the restaurant and individually greets every diner, sits down, and eats his meal in silence, and as promised pays for everyone’s bill. There are also incidents of El Chapo paying out of pocket for roads to be fixed, parks to be built, and even for homes in Sinaloa.

Also, Through all of these years, El Chapo still financially supported his family. He reportedly left a pair of briefcases with more than 400 million dollars in them for his family in case he was arrested and could not provide for them. When Guzman was arrested, American’s cheered, but those from his hometown saw their own version of Robin Hood being locked away. Though he brought death and destruction to their country, without El Chapo many of these people wouldn’t have homes or a future, he’s a savior like figure to the residence of Sinaloa. He has the money, power, respect, and the love of his people, but being El Chapo Guzman comes with a heavy price. Over the years El Chapo has lost his dearest family members and friends including his brother, son, and long time girlfriend all found carved with with Z’s in their bodies symbolizing Los Zetas which is a small gang and long time pawn used against Guzman by rival cartels.

Every one of his second in commands has been either arrested, assassinated, or even killed in front of Guzman’s own eyes. At the time of his capture, Guzman had been the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel for years, but what most people don’t know is that all of his friends that once worked side by side with him, were either six feet deep or behind bars, so his kingdom was a lonely one. Though no word has been spoken of his sentencing or even possible execution, when Guzman does go, the only thing left will be the stories that surround his name. Whether they’re the True stories, like how he was Chicago’s first public enemy number one since Al Capone. Or stories that can never be proven like the claim that “The money and valuables found in the raids of his compound, would be enough to pay for health insurance for every man woman and child in the USA for 12 years.” One story that will always follow El Chapo Guzman will be that of a multi billion dollar criminal empire paved with the bodies of his enemies and loved ones.

Whether this is a story of triumph, or a gory tragedy, is up to you, but one thing is certain, El Chapo Guzman was born a dirt poor boy from Sinaloa, and he will die one of the richest, most powerful, and well respected individuals in Mexican History.