The Dirty Secret of El Chapo’s Downfall
As the Mexican cartel leader’s trial draws to an end, one thing is clear: drug kingpins reign as long as they make their partners money. When they stop, they end up in jail.
February 1, 2019 12:00 pm
El Chapo History and Trial
From top, packages of cocaine seized last year by Peruvian police feature the faces of two famed drug lords: Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán (left) and Pablo Escobar (right); Authorities escort Guzmán to a helicopter in Mexico City after his capture in Mazatlán, February 22, 2014; Among the evidence presented in Guzmán’s trial in New York: a diamond-encrusted handgun decorated with his initials.
Photo Illustration by Jordan Amchin. From top, from Peruvian Interior Ministry/AP Photo, by Eduardo Verdugo/AP/REX/Shutterstock, from U.S. Attorney’s Office/AP Photo.
It’s the trial of the century, right?
The satisfying third act in the dramatic rise-and-fall story of a celebrated Mob boss who became one of the world’s richest men, a Robin Hood who gave to the poor, a modern-day Houdini who escaped from not one but two maximum-security prisons.
And it’s great show business with a full cast of characters: a compelling antihero, high-level drug traffickers who “flipped,” a sexy mistress, a beautiful young wife in the gallery.
It has titillating stories of luxury jets, private zoos, a naked escape (with said mistress) through an elaborate tunnel, and wretched excesses of wealth that would bring a blush to the faces of the most shameless “stars” of reality TV.
Yes, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the infamous jefe of the all-powerful Sinaloa cartel—“the godfather of the drug world,” as one D.E.A. official styled him—is being brought to justice in a trial that will stand as a major victory in the War on Drugs.
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As of this writing, the prosecution and defense have finished their closing statements and we don’t know how it will end. Maybe one of the jurors will have been compromised and Guzmán will be acquitted. Most likely he’ll be convicted and sent to prison for the rest of his life.
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Whatever the result, in the big picture …
It doesn’t matter.
The Guzmán trial will do nothing to stem the flow of drugs into the United States.
Don’t get me wrong. Guzmán’s conviction for trafficking literally tons of drugs into the United States would be a good thing. He’s not Robin Hood. He’s a killer responsible for untold suffering—surely far more than he’s charged with—and if he spends the rest of his life in prison it will be something like justice.
But his capture has done nothing to ameliorate the American drug problem, and his conviction would be likewise meaningless.
The reason is simple.
By the time of Guzmán’s capture, “escape,” and recapture in the farce that made him a celebrity, he had already lost most of his power.
He was superfluous.
The critical thing to understand is that Guzmán wasn’t—and never would be—the sole “boss” of the Sinaloa cartel. We tend to think of cartels as pyramids, with a single head at the top, but in fact they’re more like wedding cakes with several tiers.
Guzmán was on the top tier, with others, the most important being Juan Esparragoza Moreno, the late Ignacio Coronel Villarreal, and a man named Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who has been prominently featured, albeit in absentia, in this trial.
A time-tested defense-attorney maxim says that if your client is obviously guilty, put someone else on trial. In their opening statement, Guzmán’s lawyers argued that he wasn’t the real boss of the Sinaloa cartel, long the biggest D.T.O. (drug-trafficking organization) in the world. Instead, they claim, that honor belonged to Zambada, and he has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to high-ranking officials in the Mexican government in order to remain, well, in absentia.
Witnesses, including Zambada’s own brother and son, have testified to the same.
But nobody calls Mayo Zambada the “godfather of the drug world,” and that’s the way he likes it. You don’t see Zambada interviewed in Rolling Stone, trying to launch romances with television stars, or working on a biopic about himself, as Guzmán did.
Zambada is a conservative businessman who prefers to stay behind the curtain. (If there is a Don Corleone of Mexican drug lords, it is Ismael Zambada.) And his partner Guzmán was becoming increasingly problematic.
Mob bosses remain in power as long as they’re making other people money. Guzmán had begun to cost people money. At the start of his downfall, he was suffering huge declines in marijuana profits due to legalization in America. Everyone was, and one of the cartel’s responses was to get back into the heroin market for the first time since the 1970s, in order to grab a cut of the American pharmaceutical companies’ booming opioid-addict market. The cartels produced so much heroin that they created a surplus, which, in a reversal of previous policy, they started to sell inside Mexico.
Mug Shot of El Chapo
Left, Vicente Zambada Niebla, son of Mexican drug lord Ismael Zambada García, photographed while in custody in Mexico City, March 19, 2009; Right, the Mexican government released this mugshot of Guzmán after his capture, on January 12, 2016.
Left, by Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images; Right, from Uncredited/AP/REX/Shutterstock.
Guzmán got greedy and demanded a cut of the profits from local dealers in Sinaloa, thereby alienating his own power base. Combine that with his increasingly bizarre antics—more about that later—and it’s clear why he had become a liability to his partners, principally Zambada. Sources in Mexico inform me that Zambada—aging and ailing—has been wanting to take his billions and retire quietly.
But he had another problem besides Guzmán: two sons who were facing long sentences in the United States.
In 2010, Zambada’s son Vicente was extradited to the U.S. for drug trafficking and was looking at a potential life sentence. In November 2013, his brother Serafín was arrested in Arizona for conspiracy to traffic cocaine and methamphetamine and faced a sentence of ten-years-to-life as well as a $10 million fine.
In 2014, it came to light that Vicente had cut a secret plea deal agreeing to testify against Guzmán. In February 2015, Serafín was transferred to an undisclosed location, but there was no record of him in federal custody. It was widely assumed at the time that he, like his brother, needed someone to “trade up” for, and that it wasn’t going to be his father. The increasingly erratic, increasingly public Guzmán was the obvious candidate. It is no coincidence that Guzmán was initially captured while the Zambada brothers were making their deals. In March 2018, Serafín was sentenced to five-and-a-half years. He was released last September.
Still, Guzmán retained enough support, influence, and money to engineer his 2015 “daring escape,” allegedly accomplished through a near mile-long tunnel dug under the maximum-security-prison walls and also under the supposedly unwitting noses of the Mexican Army, the federales, and the prison authorities.
It was neither daring nor an escape, but rather a bought-and-paid-for departure. Prison surveillance video shows a fully dressed Guzmán “getting into the shower” behind the privacy wall (enough said) in his cell, which blocks the view as he supposedly goes down the tunnel entrance. Despite Dámaso López’s testimony, there is still cause to doubt that he ever went into that tunnel. If you can afford $15 million in construction costs and bribes to build a tunnel, you can also afford not to have to use it. It’s possible he went out the front door, the same as he did during his first “escape,” in 2001, for which there was also a face-saving official explanation—that he went out hidden in a laundry cart.
Guzmán might actually have remained free if this spectacle hadn’t brought so much attention and embarrassment to the Mexican government. The media frenzy brought pressure, especially from the U.S., that forced Mexico to launch an intense manhunt as well as raids, arrests, and seizures of product targeting the whole Sinaloa organization.
In other words, Guzmán’s shenanigans cost the cartel money.
The old truism that there’s no such thing as bad publicity is definitely not true for organized-crime figures, and for whatever reason—whether he became enamored of his own press clippings or just came to believe his own legend—Guzmán started to seek the limelight. He wanted Hollywood to make a biopic about him and that effort—combined with his infatuation with Mexican soap-opera star Kate del Castillo—led Guzmán to sit for an infamous interview with the actor Sean Penn for Rolling Stone magazine.
The article, which disclosed that Penn and del Castillo passed through a nearby army checkpoint on their way to the meeting, has been credited with leading Mexican law enforcement to Guzmán’s location. Let’s be real. They already knew where he was. But the publicity helped persuade Zambada and other decision-makers that it was time not just to allow Guzmán to be removed but to demand it. The only condition was that he not be hurt. Five of his associates were killed in the raid that netted him, but Guzmán and his assistant were unharmed.
This much is sure: Guzmán would not have been recaptured or extradited without the permission and cooperation of Zambada and other powerful figures in the cartel and Mexican government.
Now Vicente is seeking the rare and coveted S-5 visa, which will allow him and his family to remain in the U.S. for three years—and indefinitely, if all goes according to plan. His testimony at the trial included a lot of incriminating evidence about Guzmán, as well as about his own father, whom he named as the head of the Sinaloa cartel. The testimony that Vicente did give has been viewed as a betrayal of the cartel and his father, but was it really? Or did the father give his son permission to save himself by telling what everyone already knows anyway, a common practice among narcos facing long sentences in the U.S.? Unlike the Mafia, the Mexican cartels encourage their members who have been arrested to tell everything they know if they can cut a deal for a shorter sentence—all they are obliged to do is relay what they’ve given up to defense attorneys, who then pass the information on so the cartels can make the necessary adjustments.
And the most damaging testimony Vicente has given has been against Guzmán. In a sense, one can view the Zambadas’ testimony as an extension of the internal conflict now being fought between the “Zambada faction” of the Sinaloa cartel and the “Guzmán faction,” led by three of Chapo’s adult sons.
The fix was in, and that’s why this trial doesn’t make any difference to the overall drug problem. The export of cocaine, methamphetamine, and especially heroin didn’t even slow after Guzmán’s arrest.
To be sure, the cartel has been in chaos since Guzmán’s extradition, but it is partly due to internal bickering, because the power-sharing arrangement that Guzmán had envisioned between his sons, Zambada, and his former right-hand man, Damaso Lopez, has fallen apart. The larger issue is the rise of a new powerhouse: the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which is successfully contesting the Sinaloans for smuggling routes, border crossings, and poppy fields. Other, smaller organizations have also rushed to fill the power gap. As a result, in the wake of Chapo’s extradition, Mexico has suffered its two most violent years since its government started to keep track, in 1997.
If you think that Guzmán’s incarceration has been a major victory in the War on Drugs, explain why heroin overdoses in the United States have risen dramatically, not fallen, since his capture. The drug problem has gotten worse, not better.
It’s business as usual, because it’s set up to be.
Guzmán was one piece, albeit an important one, in a complex machinery composed of drug traffickers and police (on both sides of the border), as well as military, judicial, political, governmental, and business entities. Together, they make the international drug trade possible. The scope of this enterprise is gargantuan.
We’re talking about hundreds of billions of dollars a year that flow from the United States to Mexico, money that has been re-invested in legitimate businesses in Mexico, the United States, and around the world.
Some of it finds its way into the pockets of top government officials—including one or more presidents, if Guzmán’s lawyers and some witnesses are to be believed.
Mayo Zambada’s brother, Jesús, now in prison in the United States, testified that the partners in the cartel pooled more than $50 million to bribe the government of then president Felipe Calderón (2006–2012). (This accusation is strenuously denied.) He has further stated—although Judge Brian Cogan suppressed this testimony—that he paid several million dollars in bribes to a representative of current president and then Mexico City Mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador. (López Obrador has declined to comment on this allegation.)
Alex Cifuentes, a former high-ranking Guzmán aide, testified that the cartel sent $100 million to then Mexican president-elect Enrique Peña Nieto (2012–2018) to protect Guzmán from capture, and that he told American authorities about the alleged bribe back in 2016. In closing arguments, the defense said the bribe actually came from Zambada, for the purpose of having Guzmán arrested. Spokesmen for Peña Nieto have indignantly denied Cifuentes’s claim.
We might well suspect the veracity of drug traffickers. They are certainly not angels, and mendacity would be the most venial of their sins. But there are good reasons to believe them: They are all in American federal custody and have negotiated lenient sentencing deals that would be voided if they were found to have committed perjury. As such, they’ve already pleaded guilty to drug charges and therefore have nothing to hide. Furthermore, they haven’t contradicted each other, and audio-surveillance tapes entered into evidence have confirmed important parts of their testimony.
Most importantly, the “revelations” that these witnesses have brought forward aren’t revelatory—they merely confirm what we’ve always known. I’ve been writing about the Mexican drug world for two decades, and I’ve heard credible accounts of these bribes and payoffs continually from day one. I’m not unique in this regard—one highly respected journalist after another has reported these stories, some at the cost of their lives.
The point is that systemic corruption has been in place for many years, it remains in place, and it is far larger and far more powerful than a single defendant, even the supposed “godfather of the drug world.”
The real godfathers of the drug world sit in comfortable offices, not in a trial dock or a cell. Sure, putting a bad guy like Guzmán away is a good thing. But he’s only the latest in a long list: Pedro Avilés; Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo; Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the “Lord of the Skies”; Pablo Escobar; Nicky Barnes; Benjamín Arellano Félix; Osiel Cárdenas; and now Chapo Guzmán.
To what end?
Drugs are more plentiful, more potent, and less expensive than ever.
We’ll never find an answer to the drug problem until we ask the big questions about systemic corruption; the nexus between drug trafficking, government, and business; the prison-industrial complex that is funded by drug convictions; and the very nature of drug use and addiction itself. What is the true nature of the drug-trafficking machine? What is the depth and width of the corruption that allows it to flourish? Where do the billions of dollars go? How does it provide protection, and who provides that protection?
And something else.
What is the corruption of the American soul that makes us want the drugs in the first place? Opioids—which are killing more Americans now than either car crashes or guns—are a response to pain. We have to ask the question: what is the pain?
Until we ask and answer that question, the drug problem will always be with us.