Chapo Guzman: The Man, the Myth in Custody Thanks to U.S. Wiretaps

Until his Saturday capture, Joaquin Guzmán Loera headed the most powerful drug cartel in the world. Under his leadership, the Sinaloa cartel — named for its home state in northwest Mexico — was responsible for an estimated 25 percent of all illegal drugs that enter the United States from Mexico, and its tentacles spread through 23 countries, reaching as far as Australia. According to experts from the Drug Enforcement Agency, a conservative estimate of the drug cartel’s annual revenues is more than $3 billion.

In February 2013, the city of Chicago’s crime commission even branded Guzmán the first “Public Enemy No. 1” since Al Capone. He evaded authorities for 13 years before being found by Mexican Navy commandos at an unassuming beach hotel-condominium in the Mexican Pacific coast resort town of Mazatlán. That long run from the law only hints at the extent of his power and the size of his myth. At the time of his arrest, Guzmán supplied more illegal drugs to the United States than anyone else in the world, and Forbes ranked him No. 67 on its 2013 list of the world’s most powerful people.

Every year Guzmán avoided capture, his myth grew. Known by the sobriquet “El Chapo,” which translates as “Shorty,” superficially, 5-foot-6-inch Guzmán may not seem to embody the type of man who could keep several steps ahead authorities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. But his ability to elude capture through a system of bribes, safe houses, and a vast network of support was almost mythical in nature. In 1993, he was arrested in the Mexican state of Chiapas on charges related to murder and drug trafficking, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

But in 2001, he escaped in a laundry cart from a maximum security prison in Guadalajara, Jalisco, allegedly with the help of prison guards and maintenance workers. As many as 78 people have been implicated in that escape. While still in prison, Guzmán was indicted in San Diego on charges of money laundering and importing more than eight tons of cocaine into California, as well as on similar charges in Arizona. The U.S. Department of State offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest.

Following his escape, Guzmán’s power only grew. His initial rise to power in the 1980s — which followed the breakup of a super-cartel led by his mentor, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo — was marked by clashes with other traffickers. But that violence paled in comparison to the cartel wars that began with his campaign to take over Ciudad Juárez, a city that lies just across the Mexican border from El Paso, Texas.

The city of 1.5 million is one the major cross points for the Mexican drug trade, and at the time of Guzmán’s escape from prison, the city was under the control of the Carrillo Fuentes family of the Juárez cartel, and the Sinaloa and Juárez cartels had an alliance. But after the armed branch of the Sinaloa cartel assassinated the head of the rival organization, Ciudad Juárez became the front line of a war that has claimed more than 50,000 lives since December 2006. In fact, Ciudad Juárez is considered to be the most dangerous city in the world that is not an official war zone.

Guzmán built his billion-dollar narcotics empire using well-placed bribes and massive firepower. His Sinaloa cartel controlled an army of hit man that murdered thousands. Before his 2014 capture, it was believed that his influence and the extent of his power had eclipsed that of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar before his death in 1993. The Sinaloa cartel — often called the grandfather of Mexican drug-trafficking organizations — is the most wealthy and most powerful of all its rivals, and its riches and might have corrupted generations of Mexican politicians and undermined the country’s democracy.

One report from NPR quoted a former Juarez police commander who claimed elements of the Mexican military helped the Sinaloa cartel to take over Juarez.

Mass violence is a major part of Guzmán’s persona, but his story is far more complicated. “He’s a legend,” Mexico City-based security analyst Jorge Chabat told the Washington Post. While the narco leader was not flashy with his wealth, inhabitants of rural Mexico immortalized his exploits in folk songs known as narcocorridos. Stories circulated of the help he gave to the country’s poor, contributing to his mystique, and his characterization as a Robin Hood-type partially explains his ability to disappear into the notorious mountains surrounding his hometown in northwest Mexico.

Similarly, David Gaddis, former chief of enforcement operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration, told the Post: “Chapo Guzmán has been that mythical narco-ghost. He became one of these isolated traffickers who seemed to be ‘untouchable.’”  The loyalty his name commanded gave him ability to slip away from the authorities even in seemingly hopeless situations. That loyalty was often lethally enforced by the cartel’s army of guards, but it was amazing nonetheless. According to the stories, when eating at restaurants, Guzmán’s bodyguards would take everyone’s cell phone to ensure their silence then foot everyone’s bill for the inconvenience.

Guzmán was born in La Tuna, a mountain village of 40 houses located in one of the 200 poorest counties in all of Mexico: Badiraguato, Sinaloa. That county not only has the distinction of being the birthplace of many of Mexico’s most notorious drug lords, but it is also situated at the gateway to what is known as Mexico’s “golden triangle” — a mountainous, isolated, and poor region where the Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua states intersect, and where opium and marijuana have been grown for generations. There, few alternatives exist to employment beyond the drug trade.

As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2009, the people of Badiraguato are “widely seen as macho, close-mouthed people of tight-knit clans, given to intense loyalty, bloody vendettas and honor killings.” It is believed that Guzmán left school after the third grade, and his own father was involved in the cultivation of opium and marijuana. “He’s a simple guy, a rancher type, who talks with a country accent, but he’s very smart,” Jose Antonio Ortega, a lawyer who took Guzmán’s deposition in prison shortly before his escape, told the newspaper.

The question is whether Guzmán’s legend ends with his February 22 arrest. That afternoon, footage from the Mexican government showed masked Mexican marines marching Guzmán before assembled media representatives at Mexico City’s international airport, where he was placed on a helicopter that would take him to prison.

“Today’s apprehension of Joaquin ‘Chapo’ Guzman Loera by Mexican authorities is a landmark achievement, and a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States. Guzman was one of the world’s most wanted men and the alleged head of a drug-running empire that spans continents,” said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in a Saturday press release. “The criminal activity Guzmán allegedly directed contributed to the death and destruction of millions of lives across the globe through drug addiction, violence, and corruption.”

Wiretaps, which agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Marshals Service have monitored for years, led to the drug lord’s capture. Each tapped cell phone led federal intelligence officers deeper into the cartel. “It went from phone to phone, just basic law enforcement,” one U.S. official told CNN.

A recent string of arrests — including the capture of courier Mario Hidalgo Arguello and Serafin Zambada-Ortiz, the son of Guzmán’s closest lieutenant, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada — handed authorities additional cell phone data that enabled law enforcement to map the inner network of the Sinaloa cartel and its web of safe houses, which were connected by sewer-system tunnels and reinforced by steel doors. However, U.S. officials have declined to say whether the National Security Agencv played a role in the case

A U.S. Homeland Security official told CNN that key intelligence in his capture came from an ICE investigation. “It is a significant arrest, provided he gets extradited immediately to the United States,” Phil Jordan, who spent three decades with the DEA, said to the news network. “If he does not get extradited, then he will be allowed to escape within a period of time.” It has not yet been determined whether Guzmán will be extradited to the United States.

“When you arrest the most powerful man in the Americas and in Mexico, if you talk to any cartel member, they’ll say that he’s more powerful than Mexican President Peña Nieto,” Jordan told CNN. “This would be a significant blow to the overall operations not only in the Americas, but Chapo Guzman had expanded to Europe. He was all over the place. If he is, in fact, incarcerated, until he gets extradited to the United States, it will be business as usual.”

While it will take time for the impact of the arrest of Guzmán to settle on Mexico’s drug trade, the capture or killing of a drug lord can often unleash more violence as rivals and former lieutenants rush to fill the power vacuum. “The takedown of Chapo Guzmán is a thorn in the side of the Sinaloa Cartel, but not a dagger in its heart,” College of William and Mary professor and drug war expert George Grayson told the New York Times.

But for Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, it is a moment of major political success: It is the largest arrest in a generation. During his 14 months in office, Nieto has downplayed the level of drug violence in his country, but given that the arrest of Guzmán was made after a 13-year chase, the drug trafficker got a grand perp walk. Confirming the capture in a Saturday tweet, he thanked the Mexican security forces. “Congratulations to all,” he wrote.

More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet:

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS