A tale of blood, betrayal and family bonds. How El Chapo came to trial
Masks of the Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin Archivaldo Guzmán Loera aka ‘El Chapo’ in Jiutepec, Morelos state. Photograph: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images
Why was the world’s biggest druglord extradited to the US after decades of protection at every level of power in Mexico?
by Ed Vulliamy
Sun 4 Nov 2018 01.00 EST
The bus heaves through frayed barrios on the edge of Culiacán – the state capital of Sinaloa in western Mexico – on to the open road and mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental, heading for remote Badiraguato, gateway to the mountain forest terrain they call ‘El Chapo country’. It’s the birthplace of the man standing trial in New York on 5 November: Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, reputedly the world’s biggest and richest druglord.
In a book about El Chapo – entitled The Last Narco (there’s no chance of that) – Malcolm Beith writes of the curious surprise among fellow passengers at Beith’s presence on the same route a decade ago: “it’s not every day that a white man or any foreigner ride this bus into the hills”.
Nowadays, everyone knows exactly why you are there.
I have no one to meet – my only contact around here, the journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas, was slain by the mafia in 2017. Mayor Lorena Pérez Oliva is “unavailable” and no one at the friendly municipal building or Hector Olea cultural centre wants to give an interview about the man they call El Señor.
El Chapo became the master of tunnelling drugs beneath the US-Mexico border.
El Chapo became the master of tunnelling drugs beneath the US-Mexico border. Photograph: Mario Guzman/EPA
“Why are you here?” asks a man in Taqueria Yaretzi, this time not friendly at all, but there is no point in pretending to be on a leisurely hike. “Porque quiero ver donde creció Chapo Guzmán” – I want to see where he grew up. “Claro que sí” – but of course – comes the reply, stony-faced, and that was it.
At breakfast in Hotel El Moro the next morning, a funny man called Hector Valencuelos wishes ‘we had the kind of tourism they get in Medellín!’ No one has yet told him the Colombian city, in its wisdom, has closed the infamous Pablo Escobar museum.
“If he gave us even the small change, our town wouldn’t look like this,” a waitress at El Cerrito restaurant says.
The trial of El Chapo Shorty Guzmán comes after a tsunami of TV, films and books that have burnished his credentials as the world’s premier drug lord.
That folklore must now be proved, this time through 300,000 pages of six indictments from all over the US compiled by prosecutors in the New York eastern district, whom El Chapo must answer to at the Cadman Plaza courthouse in Brooklyn.
There are thousands of wiretaps, witness statements, an extradition request and memoranda for pre-trial detention. The Guardian has exhaustively surveyed the extensive documentation, and spoken to prosecutors and law enforcement north and south of the border. What emerges is a picture of what we can expect as the trial unfolds, details of betrayal and treason within the cartel and the shifting demands of political power on both sides of the border.
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The court will hear how young Guzmán hailed from the wild “Golden Triangle” between Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango: about the sheer volume of cocaine Guzmán was able to procure from Colombia and shift north at speed, using existing marijuana and heroin routes, for which he initially earned the nom de narco El Rapido.
We’ll hear how El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel outgrew the Colombians, to supply an estimated 90% of cocaine and heroin consumed in the United States and Europe, and a lion’s share worldwide.
Inside view of the tunnel used by El Chapo to escape from the maximum security prison El Altiplano in 2015.
Inside view of the tunnel used by El Chapo to escape from the maximum security prison El Altiplano in 2015. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Prosecutors will explain how Guzmán paid multimillion dollar bribes to corrupt officials “at every level of local, municipal, state, national and foreign government”, according to one supporting memo in the New York indictment. One police chief took $1m in cash to protect a shipment. Guzmán widened the horizons and possibilities of money laundering to make No 41 on Forbes’ list of the most influential people in the world.
And of course we’ll hear about how Guzmán became the master of tunnelling drugs beneath the US-Mexico border and himself out of jail before he was recaptured a last time in January 2016 at Los Mochis.
Behind the oft-repeated adventure of Guzmán’s rise is the less well known story of his demise – the how and why of his capture: the timing of and reasons for his delivery to the United States after decades of protection at every level of power in Mexico.
A dark family drama
The late, great writer Charles Bowden posited in a book about Ciudad Juárez – ‘Murder City’ – that the problem with commentary on Mexico’s violence is that there is no control room, no place in which someone – anyone – really knows what’s happening.
Mexico’s narco war has no black box – where the definitive account of an aircraft crash is contained – so everything one writes about it includes conjecture. But an investigation by the Guardian – talking to sources in law enforcement north and south of the border, to narco-observers, reporters on the ground and insiders, and surveying thousands of pages of documents in Mexico and the US – reveals some of the possible elements in a dark family drama that makes even the Neftlix narrative look tame.
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, once one of Mexico’s most powerful drug lords, and 36 of his associates.
Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, once one of Mexico’s most powerful drug lords, and 36 of his associates. Photograph: AP
Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel was never a tight-knit organisation – more a federation that understood the need for alliances and franchises in order to reach across Mexico, the Americas and the world. It was helped by the fact that elements within the Mexican state saw the cartel’s power as guarantor of a “Pax Mafiosa” that enabled it to exercise control, and go after rival – even more ruthless – newer syndicates like Los Zetas. But with time, the Sinaloa cartel’s strengths became weaknesses, as it overstretched even its own limits, becoming an organisation in which no one knew who to trust.
Law enforcement in the US and Mexico have exploited these fractures and competing interests, picking off erstwhile allies of Guzmán, and turning them against him. Over many years, this has been the strategy behind some of the more dramatic testimony we can expect at trial. The careers of two crucial lieutenants in the cartel above all explain the backstage betrayal and final capture of Guzmán – one is certain to testify, as is the son of the other. These witnesses will blow open the secrets of, and reveal the faultlines and frictions within, what was until recently seen as an impregnable criminal corporation.
They are: the enigmatic figure of Ismael Zambada García – El Mayo – who many believe to be man who delivered Guzmán. And Dámaso López Nuñez, known as El Licienciado or El Lic, because of his qualification in law. El Lic used his contacts to organise El Chapo’s escape from the high-security jail Puente Grande in 1993 – but El Lic is now in captivity himself, in the US, and among Guzmán’s most dangerous enemies.
The former lieutenants – now enemies?
El Mayo – Ismael Zambada García
El Mayo was a cofounder of the cartel, who served since the early 1980s in all the offshoots of the old Guadalajara syndicate in Juárez and Tijuana. He was considered to be the cartel’s accountant and business strategist, more cautious than El Chapo. While Guzmán built his empire on an ability to shift vast quantities of drugs, El Mayo realised that volume had to be controlled in order to maintain its price. The court in Brooklyn is likely to hear how El Mayo streamlined distribution networks through the US and Europe, and perfected money-laundering arrangements. After 50 years in the business, El Mayo has never seen the inside of a jail cell.
Three differences are said to have estranged El Mayo from the chief. First, according to several sources, the simple fact that at the time of his seizure in Mazatlán in 2014 (an El Mayo strongold), Guzmán had groomed not El Mayo as successor, but his rival deputy, López Nuñez.
Second, while El Mayo remained in the shadows (apart from one interview with the publisher of Proceso magazine), Guzmán criss-crossed Mexico making daring appearances that became folklore.
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Then, famously, he went a step too far: everyone knows the story of how actress Kate del Castillo caught Guzmán’s eye, and became involved in discussions about a biopic that led to a meeting between El Chapo and Sean Penn. The Guardian has learned that the very existence of this proposal infuriated El Mayo; who else was in the film? Was he? Were the carefully-arranged contacts at high levels of state and military? For El Mayo, narco-traffic was business, not show business.
Finally, according to Mexican federal sources and Roberto Saviano, El Mayo is said to have urged Guzmán that plans needed to be laid to hand over cartel control to capable lieutenants from a new generation, as the founding fathers aged (El Mayo himself is reportedly unwell) and reeled from arrests and extraditions, and lest “they take it on their own terms, at their own risk” (said mafia expert and author Roberto Saviano, quoting a source close to El Mayo in the Excelsior newspaper).
The bodies of 13 bullet-ridden men, with their hands tied behind their backs, victims of the drug war involving Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel, lie in a field.
The bodies of 13 bullet-ridden men, with their hands tied behind their backs, victims of the drug war involving Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel, lie in a field. Photograph: Anonymous/AP
El Mayo is said to have his own state and military contacts at a deep level, which – like Guzmán’s – not only made it possible for the Sinaloa cartel to spread, protected, but also for quarters of Guzmán’s protection to be lifted once El Mayo removed it. It is said that El Mayo was with Guzmán when he was finally lifted in Los Mochis – that they were together when Guzmán initially escaped the raid, disappearing into a sewer. And that when they appeared, to hijack a red Ford Focus from a woman and her child, covered in grime, El Mayo gave her back her purse. El Chapo was then captured, El Mayo not.
But there was another key adjutant to Guzmán – and this one is in custody, now likely to turn the tables against his former mentor and Capo, a former druglord – now snitch.
El Lic – López Nuñez
Law graduate El Licenciado López Nuñez is the son of a senior figure in the Institutional Revolutionary party, which ruled Mexico for 72 years until 2000, and again from 2012 until an election this year. He became a police officer and joined the Sinaloa state prosecutor’s office, later the federal prison service, specialising in high-risk, high-security jails including Puente Grande, “Big Bridge”, wherein El Chapo was held – and held sway – until his famous escape in 2001. It was there El Lic ‘defected’ to the cartel and facilitated the escape, since which the prison has been known among Mexicans as Puerta Grande – big door.
By the time Guzmán was re-arrested in February 2014 in Mazatlán (an El Mayo stronghold), López Nuñez had apparently been his designated heir. He had, however – according to a US indictment – “constructed his own criminal structure”, and begun an online campaign against Guzmán’s sons, Iván Archivaldo and Jésus Alfredo, calling them “sapitos” – snitches. He even ordered them kidnapped in the city of Puerta Vallarta, their freedom negotiated by El Mayo. In June 2016, 150 gunmen reportedly dispatched by El Licienciado attacked the home of Guzmán’s mother Consuelo Loera.
Now, López Nuñez and Guzmán will face one another across the courtroom.
Before he could assert his authority, López Nuñez was arrested – in May 2017 – and extradited to the US that July. Now, he is cooperating, proffering details on an indictment from 2013 that accuses him of “a significant role in international drugs trafficking, and handling drugs” worth $280m. El Licenciado, held at an undisclosed location, is expected to go far in condemning the man he once sprung from jail. This is a family affair for López Nuñez.
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In August 2017, El Lic’s brother Álvaro López was taken by DEA agents at the border crossing between Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona – he is also likely to testify. The previous month, El Licenciado’s son Damas López Serrano, Mini-Lic, had given himself up to US authorities at the crossing further west, between Mexicali and Calexico, Calfornia. In January 2018, he pleaded guilty to drug-smuggling charges in San Diego, where prosecutors tell the Guardian that he has also turned state’s evidence, due to testify against Guzmán. The former head of international operations for the DEA, Mike Vigil, says Mini-Lic could provide “a virtual encyclopedia” on the cartel.
The Guardian understands that López Nuñez is now engaged in trying to secure what one source called “a package deal” whereby the whole family – himself, his brother and son – serves less time in exchange for Guzmán never seeing a puerta grande again.
So Guzmán will recognise many familiar and formerly dear faces in court. And among those disappointments and betrayals, few will be as painful as that of a boy Guzmán nurtured like one of his own sons: El Vicentillo, Vicente Zambada Niebla, El Mayo’s son.
El Vicentillo – Vicente Zambada Niebla
Suspected Mexican drug trafficker Vicente Zambada Niebla is presented to the media in Mexico City in March 2009.
Suspected Mexican drug trafficker Vicente Zambada Niebla is presented to the media in Mexico City in March 2009. Photograph: Daniel Aguilar/Reuters
Vicentillo was arrested in Mexico City in March 2009, after flamboyant appearances on social media typical of ‘Narco Juniors’, but anathema to their fathers. According to a US indictment unsealed in 2013, he had moved more than $1bn-worth of drugs into the US and operated a vast distribution and money-laundering network centered on the Sinaloa’s fortress city of Chicago. Prosecutors in north Illinois say Vicentillo “inundated Chicago with heroin and cocaine”.
Vicentillo is among the biggest catches in the prosecutor’s net. The indictment is all-encompassing: he was at his father’s and Guzmán’s side since the early 1990s, with top-level connections to Colombia, responsibility for ship- and submarine-loads of cocaine and overseeing the transfer of vast quantities of weaponry and money.
The extent of El Vicentillo’s collaboration was sufficient for the US to commute – in 2014 – his life sentence to a mere ten years. What remains to be seen under cross-examination is whether and how his betrayal of Guzmán furthers the interests of his father, and sheds light on what role Zambada Sr played in El Chapo’s capture.
El Chapo’s fall
There is little doubt that Guzmán enjoyed and paid for protection at the highest levels of Mexican politics, military and law enforcement.
A combination of corruption and mutual interests helped his Sinaloa cartel pick off rivals one by one along the western stretches of the US border to achieve domination of drug markets across the Americas and Europe while Mexico itself descended into an abyss of violence after 2006. For his allies and guardians in power, Guzmán kept a peace of sorts against newer, wilder, uncontrollable syndicates and gangs – a best bad option.
What was it, though, that caused Guzmán’s protection on high to crumble – the only explanation for the assault on his associates? And why in 2014 and 2016? What was the political calculation in the winding narrative of US-Mexican relations? Several sources and some reporters mention the great sell-off of Mexican oil, and vast privatisation of the state-owned Pemex company, policy pillar of the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto, and major opportunity for American energy interests.
Former Mexican attorney general Arely Gómez says that the Castillo-Penn episode was “an essential element” in the betrayal and capture of Guzmán; he refers specifically to tracing the phones of lawyers acting for Guzmán during the negotiations. (On CBS , Penn dismissed the claim as a “myth”). But a source close to Castillo adds a further dimension to the story missing from that flamboyantly broadcast so far.
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Guzmán reportedly confided in Castillo that he was frustrated by the Sinaloa cartel’s falling behind Los Zetas in the burgeoning business of illicit tapping of oil – mostly along the Zeta-controlled Gulf coast – for domestic and US markets, and of his interest in redressing that balance by conjoining the Pemex privatisation with investment from cartel proceeds – “Chapoil”.
Sources within the Mexican attorney general’s office confirm that this was true, and of concern not only to them, but majorly to the US. “It was bad enough to have Guzmán escape from jail in 2014, but a step too far in the matter of Guzmán’s corruption of some areas of Mexican public life for him to claim a stake in the oil business,” a former US diplomatic source with experience in the privatisations told the Guardian.
The handing over of Guzmán on the final day of Barack Obama’s presidency, within hours of the inauguration of Donald Trump, was “not devoid of gesture’’, said the former diplomat.
Young women wear headbands featuring the name of El Chapo during a march in Culiacan in February 2014.
Young women wear headbands featuring the name of El Chapo during a march in Culiacan in February 2014. Photograph: Daniel Becerril/REUTERS
Jorge Chabat of the CIDE research institute of Mexico City says that: “the fact we delivered him on Obama’s last day is a clear political message that says this is a government we have long collaborated with. By not sending him to Trump after the inauguration is a subtle statement saying: we could not do this for you in the future unless we have a good relationship. If not, there won’t be other powerful narco-traffickers extradited.” No major extradition has followed Guzmán’s.
These betrayals, arrests and extradition – far from calming the situation – unleashed a wave of internecine violence across Sinaloa, and all of Mexico.
The week after Guzmán’s extradition saw a surge in violence across Culiacán especially – 20 were killed there in one weekend. 2017 became the deadliest year on record in Mexico’s narco-nightmare, and this year began more brutally than ever in Ciudad Juárez, – 27 murdered within the first three days of 2018 – and Tijuana, with 90 killed in three weeks.
A stark irony hangs over the trial in New York. It was at the US headquarters of the HSBC bank across the East River from Cadman Plaza that hundreds of millions of dollars of El Chapo’s proceeds were embraced and cleaned for circulation across the “legal” economy. (Wachovia bank did the same with even greater amounts, as admitted to the US court in southern Florida.) HSBC’s punishments were an admonition and fine payable. No one was confined to a cell in Brooklyn.
The Mexican expert in money-laundering Edgardo Buscaglia calculates that “Guzmán has a hand in, or controls, some 3,500 companies across four continents.” Where are they, and will they come to trial?
An indictment of Guzmán filed in El Paso in 2012 accuses him of running “a vast money-laundering apparatus”, but fails to specify where. Another indictment in southern Florida filed in 2014, after the Wachovia settlement was secured there, lists 92 wire transfers conducted by associates of Guzmán, between 2003 and 2007 through a branch of Bank of America in Oklahoma City. Will that paper trail be followed, and the bank prosecuted for money-laundering?
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Few in Colombia or Mexico rue the killing of Pablo Escobar or the extradition of Guzmán respectively, but many citizens of both countries will see in this trial one of a brown-skinned criminal by a gringo court that hunts less avidly after its own high-flying crooks.
Only one thing is certain: El Chapo Guzmán is not “the last narco”. The mass murder, disappearances, slaying of journalists and suffering may have intensified on the ground in Mexico since El Chapo’s arrest and fragmenting of the Plaza but there has been no interruption in the flow of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine into the US and Europe – in fact, the supply is greater than ever – yet no commodity in the world trades at such a steady, reliable price.
Among the many things Guzmán shares with El Mayo Zambada García is that each granted only one interview. Zambada García told Julio Scherer, publisher of Proceso, that he had a lifelong fear of incarceration, but pondered: “One day I may decide to turn myself in, so they can shoot me, and there’ll be general euphoria. But we all know that at the end of the day, nothing will have changed.” Talking to Sean Penn, Guzmán said: “this will never end”.