The Rise and Fall of El Chapo

Feb 24, 2014 at 5:53 PM ET

The call came from a tunnel beneath Culiacan, a city in northwestern Mexico. Joaquin Guzman Loera, aka “El Chapo,” needed an escape route. It was Feb. 17, and the authorities were swarming the city. The world’s most wanted drug lord—the alleged head of the fearsome Sinaloa Cartel—needed help. He’d evaded capture before, but his luck appeared to be running out.

Mexican authorities, with the assistance of American DEA agents, had been tapping Chapo’s satellite phone for several hours. They traced the signal to a house in the center of the Culiacan, and after identifying his voice, they launched a raid—but there was no Chapo. He had escaped through an elaborate network of tunnels, which led to the sewers.

What the drug lord didn’t know, however, was that his phone was tapped. The authorities soon traced another call from it to the Miramar Hotel, in Mazatlan, a resort city just a couple of hours away. Chapo had paid to rent a two-bedroom apartment big enough for a family of four, with a living room, small kitchen and dining room.

Early in the morning on Feb. 22, 10 trucks carrying 65 Mexican marines surrounded the 10-story building. They moved in and quickly subdued Chapo’s bodyguard, who was sleeping in the lobby. He led the marines up to the apartment, where they found Chapo lying in bed in the master bedroom, according to reconstructions of the raid published in various Mexican newspapers. (Some media claim one of his wives was next to him in the bed, but this remains unconfirmed.) Chapo reached for his gun, an AK-47, but received four blows to the head before he could fire a shot. The world’s most wanted man had finally been captured.

Chapo is just one of dozens of alleged drug kingpins captured or killed by Mexican and U.S. authorities in recent years. And while it remains to be seen if his arrest will decimate the Sinaloa Cartel or serve as a tipping point in the deadly drug war, Chapo may very well be the last of a certain breed.

Born in 1957 in the mountain pueblo of La Tuna de Badiraguato of the northwestern state of Sinaloa, he rose fast through the ranks of the Sinaloa Cartel. His father was an opium farmer, or gomero, according to local lore, and his uncle was a lieutenant and well-respected innovator in the drug trade, according to the authorities. Chapo reputedly learned the drug trade under Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, aka “El Padrino” (The Godfather), the head of the Guadalajara Cartel, which at the time was the only major drug-trafficking organization in Mexico. Chapo quickly developed a no-nonsense reputation and a penchant for ruthlessness—when necessary.

In the early 1990s, after Mexico’s one major drug-trafficking organization was divided up regionally, Chapo went on to head a loose-knit alliance of Sinaloa narcos known as the Federation. And as he gained more autonomy, he became more innovative. Chapo hired an associate to build him tunnels under the Arizona border. His other creative smuggling methods included stashing cocaine in car panels and cans of jalapeños.

Within a few short years, Chapo was expanding his turf, battling rival cartels in Tijuana and other border areas. The wars helped him become known as the kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel, but the strategy ultimately proved costly. In May 1993, the Arellano Felix brothers from Tijuana attempted to murder Chapo at the airport in Guadalajara. They missed, and instead killed a Mexican cardinal, igniting the wrath of the Mexican government. Chapo fled to Guatemala, and soon the military members he’d bribed there betrayed him.

DEA officials say Chapo handed over the reigns of the cartel to his brother Arturo. But he still kept tabs on the operation from behind bars, where he allegedly lived like a king. Stories abound of his parties with prostitutes, tequila and cocaine. One lawyer who took the drug lord’s testimony while in prison says that Chapo “felt at home” there, “as if he had control.”

According to a psychological profile of Chapo conducted by the Mexican authorities while he was in prison, the drug lord had a need to always be in charge; it was an obsession for him. He also had a penchant for seduction that allowed him to recruit fellow narcos, as well as women. “His affable character allows him to naturally convince those he interacts with, especially those who…protect him,” the analysis read.

Eventually, however, Chapo wanted his freedom. In the late 1990s, he allegedly asked a relative to talk to the Mexican government and the DEA to try to negotiate a release or escape, according to Samuel Gonzalez Ruiz, a former Mexican federal prosecutor. In exchange, the drug lord allegedly offered to give them information on his rivals, the Arellano Felix brothers. U.S. officials dismissed Ruiz’s claims. A few years later, in 2001—just days before the Mexican Supreme Court would vote in favor of an extradition policy to the United States—the drug lord escaped and resumed control of the cartel.

For several years, Chapo laid low. But in 2004, he deployed his sicarios (assassins) to the border city of Nuevo Laredo, sparking a drug war that would soon spiral out of control, and eventually force the Mexican authorities to respond with brutal force. In the meantime, rumors began to circulate that Chapo was in Honduras or Guatemala, adding to the drug lord’s mythology and making it increasingly difficult for the authorities to find him.

There were some close calls, however. In 2004, the Mexican army received a tip that Chapo and one of his associates had thrown a party in La Tuna, the drug lord’s hometown. They were on their way to the neighboring state of Durango, when helicopters swooped in on a nearby ranch where Chapo was thought to be resting. The narcos managed to escape on foot through the hills.

Later that same year, Mexican authorities and roughly 200 soldiers stormed another ranch in the mountains just north of La Tuna. They’d heard Chapo’s voice on a tapped satellite phone, but missed him by 10 minutes. His network of informants had once again been one step ahead of the law.

On his home turf in the mountains of Sinaloa, Chapo was untouchable. One Mexican general, Eugenio Hidalgo Eddy, remembers leading convoys up the Sierra Nevada Occidental on a tip that Chapo was in the area. But upon seeing the hamlet of La Tuna ahead through the clearing, Gen. Eddy’s men also saw smoke billowing from a lookout point atop the hills. By the time the soldiers arrived in town, Chapo was long gone—if he had been there at all.

Through the close calls, however, the authorities did get a sense of how Chapo lived his life on the lam. There was little room for splendor, but it wasn’t a no-frills existence. At a massive methamphetamine compound in Durango, for instance, soldiers found evidence that Chapo had been there in 2009. The compound was decked out with living quarters for hundreds of employees, and featured several rooms with full bathrooms, high-speed Internet access, satellite and plasma screens, king-size beds, minibars and air-conditioning. The soldiers also found tens of thousands of dollars in cash.

By 2009, criticism of the government’s drug policies was peaking. Roughly 10,000 people had died each year since the Mexican government launched its frontal assault on the cartels. And yet, Chapo, public enemy number one, remained at large. The reason, critics contended, was that the Sinaloa Cartel had struck a deal with the government.

But over the next few years, the authorities arrested and captured dozens of high-ranking Sinaloa cartel lieutenants, plaza chiefs and even some of Chapo’s kin. Thanks to information gleaned from the trial of one of his cohorts. They also began closing in on Chapo. According to one DEA official who was stationed in Mexico at the time, the drug lord still had his close circle of trusted lieutenants, but he was feeling the heat. In 2012, that pressure only increased when the U.S. Treasury Department began targeting some of his family members, seizing their assets and forbidding U.S. companies from doing business with them.

Chapo is now behind bars at a maximum security prison outside of Mexico City. Under indictment in multiple U.S. states, he could find himself on trial in Chicago, where some of his alleged associates are seeing their day in court. In recent years, Mexico has sent a record number of drug suspects to the United States, so extradition is possible. (Chapo’s lawyers filed an appeal today for an injunction against any extradition attempt.)

Claims that Chapo is Mexico’s Osama bin Laden are largely hyperbole. But thanks to sweeping laws passed under the Bush administration, U.S. prosecutors could try him on charges of terrorism—especially since testimony in one ongoing Chicago trial indicated that Chapo allegedly considered launching attacks on a U.S. embassy or consulate in Mexico.

As for the Sinaloa cartel, it’s unlikely to collapse anytime soon. Several narcocorridos (drug ballads) have already been written in Chapo’s honor. In the county of Badiraguato, the mood appears surprisingly calm. Some locals are disgruntled. Chapo was their patron, after all, says one resident, but there are no immediate signs that tensions will flare as they have in the past when capos have fallen.

Chapo—and of course, his mythology—certainly helped hold his organization together as it expanded to become the world’s most powerful cartel. But the legendary kingpin will undoubtedly be replaced, and rather quickly. As his cohort, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, told the Mexican newsmagazine Proceso in 2010: “When it comes to the capos—jailed, dead or extradited—their replacements are ready.”

Whether El Mayo or any another alleged capo can truly fill Chapo’s shoes is a different matter entirely. But as long as there’s a demand for illicit drugs in the U.S., someone in Sinaloa will find a way to get them across the border.

Malcolm Beith is a former general editor at Newsweek International. He covered the drug war in Mexico between 2007 and 2010, and wrote two books on the subject: The Last Narco (Grove, 2010) and Hasta El Ultimo Dia (Ediciones B, Mexico, 2012). 

Jan-Albert Hootsen is Vocativ’s Mexico bureau chief.