The barefoot son of a peasant who became one of the richest moguls in the world, a billionaire entrepreneur with a third-grade education. He controls a vast drug distribution empire that spans six continents, but he still carries his own AK-47. He is generous and feared, a mass murderer and a folk hero. He is a ghost who has become a legend.
In the fifth year of a terrible war in Mexico that has exhausted the military, consumed the presidency of Felipe Calderon and left more than 43,000 dead in drug violence, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the founder of the Sinaloa cartel, reigns supreme.
His pursuers compare him to Al Capone, Butch Cassidy or Osama bin Laden. But none of these gets it quite right. Guzman is the single largest supplier of illegal drugs to the United States, and though he is in hiding, he is not on the run.
Ten years after he escaped from prison in a laundry basket on the eve of his extradition to the United States, Chapo is more powerful than ever: His networks are deeper, his territory is expanding, and his supplies of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine are essentially undiminished, according to U.S. and Mexican agents and officials, who were grinding their teeth at the news that Guzman’s 22-year-old beauty queen wife was able to travel in August to a Los Angeles County hospital, where she gave birth to healthy twins.
President Calderon, reportedly desperate to nail his nemesis and prove himself a winning commander in chief in an increasingly unpopular war that may cost his party the presidency, has raised the stakes to demand that “Chapo”, be taken down before he leaves office next year.
As a sign of the intensified effort, Mexico now operates at least three full-time capture-kill units solely dedicated to ending the reign of Guzman, according to officials with direct knowledge of the groups. These special operations teams — one each in the Mexican army, navy and federal police — have been vetted to work alongside agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who have supplied detailed intelligence about Chapo’s possible locations.
President Calderon and his top law enforcement officials say they have come close to getting Guzman — within an hour or two — several times in the past two years.
Despite such assertions, Calderon has been dogged by perceptions among many Mexicans that his administration, especially his military, has gone easy on Guzman’s cartel, or even that it’s helping him, while it goes after his biggest rival, Los Zetas, a rising criminal power in the country.
“He’s protected by the government,” said Javier Valdez, a top editor of the Sinaloa-based journal Rio Doce, adding that he doesn’t think any urgent effort is underway to find “Chapo.”
Elusive mountain ‘lord’
Guzman, one of the most wanted criminals in North America, has proven impossible to catch — even as U.S. drones penetrate Mexican airspace, and Mexican security forces, supplied with sophisticated U.S. eavesdropping equipment, scan the ether for the sound of his encrypted voice. His pursuers suspect he is most likely in a mountain stronghold here in the Sierra Madre range of northwest Mexico, a hardscrabble backwater of Mexican hillbillies that gives new meaning to the words “poor” and “remote.”