Mexico's Master of Elusion

Times Staff Writer

The voice was unmistakably his. Mexico's most wanted criminal was back in his rural stronghold in the western Sierra Madre.

But when 200 army paratroopers swooped in by helicopter minutes after the voice registered on a wiretap, he was gone. The soldiers found only a few ranch hands and the drug baron's Hummer and Dodge Ram pickup, which they blew up before retreating in frustration.

The November raid was the closest a government search party has come to Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman since he slipped out of a maximum-security prison in a laundry cart 4 1/2 years ago.

On the lam with a satellite phone, laptop computer and AK-47 rifle, the 50-year-old fugitive has rebuilt his empire and started a war with rival smugglers that has claimed more than 600 lives this year. Although Mexican officials call him one of the most prolific, innovative and ruthless traffickers they have ever faced, his disappearing acts have made him a folk hero.

The 5-foot-6 kingpin's nickname means "Shorty," but there is nothing diminutive about the shadow he casts on Mexico and the United States. The story of his mercurial career and bid for underworld supremacy offers a glimpse of a violent industry that bedevils both countries.

Although U.S. officials have repeatedly praised Mexico's anti-drug efforts under President Vicente Fox, including the arrest of 18 cartel leaders over the last four years, Guzman's elusiveness is an embarrassing symbol of the country's failure to stop the bloodshed or slow the flow of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and amphetamines into the United States.

"He is the last of the Mohicans," said Jorge Chabat, a Mexico City expert on law enforcement issues. "All the other big cartels have been decapitated. That is why they want him so badly."

U.S. authorities also want to get Shorty, who was indicted in 1995 in San Diego on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to import tons of cocaine. In December, federal authorities offered a $5-million reward for tips leading to his capture and are sharing intelligence with Mexican authorities.

Since then, the dragnet has tightened with the arrests in Mexico of Guzman's 21-year-old son (nicknamed "Little Shorty"), a brother, two nephews and a niece, all accused of aiding his drug business. Nine houses and six vehicles belonging to him and his associates were seized in June.

Rival drug traffickers are after him too. They killed another of his brothers and two of his associates in a Mexican prison last year.

But so far the heat on Guzman has merely enhanced his mystique as an untouchable outlaw constantly on the move, escorted by 10 armed bodyguards and apparently shielded across Mexico by a web of corrupt officials to whom he once boasted paying a total of $5 million per month.

By sport utility vehicle and private aircraft, he shuttles among safe houses in 16 of Mexico's 31 states, according to an army intelligence report. "He is practically a guerrilla of drugs," said Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, Mexico's deputy attorney general for organized crime.

A ballad recorded by Los Buitres (The Vultures) and sold on CDs across the country is part of a popular narco-culture that glorifies Guzman's life on the run and the exploits of other kingpins.

He sleeps at times in homes,

at times in tents

Radio and rifle at the foot

of the bed

Sometimes his roof is a cave.

Guzman does seem to be everywhere.

"Once, on a single day, I got tips of sightings in Nuevo Laredo, Mochicahui, Badiraguato, Mexicali, Caborca and Agua Prieta," said J. Jesus Blancornelas, a Tijuana newspaper editor who is knowledgeable about the drug cartels. "Everyone thinks they are seeing him."

The difficulty of arresting Guzman becomes starkly evident in the isolated, mountainous terrain of Badiraguato, the 2,000-square-mile municipality in Sinaloa state where he was born.

His ranch at La Tuna is a five-hour drive on bad roads from Badiraguato's well-kept urban center. Between the ranch and the outside world are several thousand families who have lived for generations on the proceeds of marijuana and poppy cultivation. They complain of government neglect and defiantly replant their illegal crops as fast as the army destroys them.

"Some of them have benefited from his generosity," said Santiago Vasconcelos, the federal prosecutor. "They see him as a hero. They cover for him, and when any stranger comes into the communities, they warn him."

"It's similar to trying to find Osama bin Laden," a U.S. law enforcement official said.

Badiraguato's 29-man police force does nothing to stop his security detail from setting up checkpoints, people in the area say. "When the cops pass El Chapo on the road, they call him Boss," a resident said.

But most people here are reluctant to utter Guzman's name, much less acknowledge his comings and goings. "We do not know in the slightest whether or not this famous Chapo even exists," said Jose Luis Morales, the municipality's No. 2 official.

Residents who are willing to talk about him are unwilling to give their names. They say the drug baron spreads cash like a benevolent father, paying for public works and medical care for the needy. They say he shuns fancy jewelry, has a wife and several mistresses, comes home frequently and throws catered parties at the ranch but never stays long.

When federal police raided one of his parties, in November 2003, Guzman and his guests had been tipped off and left behind four hapless narco-balladeers of La Sombra Nortena (the Northern Shadow), who had been paid $4,000 to entertain. They and their sound man were arrested on charges of possessing marijuana and a firearm.

Guzman's illicit empire is proof that someone with a third-grade education can rise to the top in Mexico as long as his family is well connected.

A former mistress, Zulema Hernandez, told author Julio Scherer for a book about Mexico's prisons that Guzman felt deprived growing up and was haunted into his adulthood by "a terror of returning to poverty." As a boy, she said, he toiled on his grandfather's farm after his abusive father kicked him out of the house.

Poor or not, Guzman was a nephew of the late Pedro Aviles Perez, a founding father of the Sinaloa drug cartel. He eventually joined its payroll as an overseer of illicit crops.

The cartel's rise in the 1980s marked the birth of large-scale Mexican drug trafficking. Already producing and exporting marijuana and heroin, it took over the shipment of South American cocaine through Mexico to the U.S. Southwest after U.S. authorities closed off air and sea smuggling routes into Florida.

Guzman rose quickly to become the cartel's import manager. It was his job to get planes, boats and trucks full of cocaine into Mexico, while his cousin Hector Palma took charge of moving the drugs by land to clients in the United States.

By 1989, Aviles was dead and cartel co-founder Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo was in prison. The cartel broke up, with Guzman and Palma taking a chunk of the operation that was moving up to 24 tons of cocaine a month, U.S. law enforcement officials say.

Guzman, the dominant of the two cousins, began to gain notoriety for two qualities: brutality and creativity.

Challenged by the Arellano Felix family for control of the cartel, Guzman went to war. The Arellanos, who were related to the imprisoned Felix Gallardo, set up base in Tijuana. In 1992, Guzman sent 40 gunmen to a Puerto Vallarta disco where the Arellanos were partying. Nine people died in the commando-style raid.

Meanwhile, Guzman devised innovative ways to move ever larger quantities of cocaine. He smuggled the powder inside fire extinguishers and set up phony food distribution warehouses so he could move it, truckloads at a time, in cans labeled chili peppers.

"He thinks big," Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Misha Pilastro said. "When Chapo gets involved in a drug deal, we're talking about extremely large quantities. Tons."

First arrested in 1991, Guzman bribed the Mexico City police chief $50,000 to let him go. Later testimony in Mexico alleged that he enjoyed the protection of the country's top law enforcement officials at the time.

His imprisonment in 1993 resulted from his feud with the Arellanos, who had sent gunmen to ambush him at the Guadalajara airport. Instead, they shot the city's Roman Catholic cardinal, Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, whose death brought public pressure on the government to move against the drug barons. Guzman was arrested 16 days later in Guatemala.

Living in luxury at El Puente Grande, the maximum-security prison near Guadalajara, he allegedly kept his hand in business with messages passed through his lawyers. Shortly after Mexico's Supreme Court ruled that he could be extradited to the United States, he escaped.

The prison warden and more than 30 guards were implicated in what one narco-ballad immortalized as the "breakout of the millennium." Mexican officials have been trying to recapture him ever since.

Staying a step ahead of them, Guzman adapted to changes in the drug business during his 7 1/2 -year imprisonment. Facing a federal administration less susceptible to bribery than its predecessors, he has made his operation more mobile and relied on corrupt local officials.

Despite being semiliterate (he once used a ghostwriter to pen love letters to a mistress), he has mastered the Internet as a tool to make multimillion-dollar deals without risky face-to-face meetings, U.S. officials say.

Equally important, Mexican authorities say, he has gained the financial and armed support of key Colombian traffickers who had lost faith in the Mexican cartels as the Fox administration infiltrated their ranks and captured their leaders.

"He was at the top of his game before he went to prison, and it was only a matter of time before he'd get back up there if he stayed alive," a U.S. law enforcement official said. "He's definitely back. He's strong. You can tell from the violence, he's more and more out there."

His rivals have fallen one by one since 2002. Ramon Arellano Felix is dead, and his brother Benjamin is in prison, along with Gulf cartel boss Osiel Cardenas, exposing their Baja California and Rio Grande territories to Guzman's forays.

One U.S. official says gangs led by Guzman and two allies now control all drug traffic along the Arizona and New Mexico borders and are fighting for gateways into Texas and California in a battle involving hundreds of gunmen.

U.S. officials say there is no evidence that the violence has diminished Guzman's operation or the overall flow of drugs from Mexico. But the Mexican manhunt is focused enough, they believe, that in the long run Shorty will go down. "He's a very high-profile target, and eventually he'll make a mistake and get caught," a U.S. official said.

To Guzman's neighbors in the Sierra Madre, the search is an exercise in futility.

Even with him gone, they say, little would change as long as Americans crave illegal drugs and Mexico remains a poor country with weak law enforcement. As they have for generations, the highlands of Sinaloa will keep producing narcotics and "other Chapo Guzmans," said Jose A. Rios, who once represented the state in Mexico's Congress.

For now, Chapo remains a fugitive and keeps popping up in the unlikeliest places.

On a Saturday evening in early May, he strode brazenly into an upscale restaurant in Nuevo Laredo, a violent border city whose drug trade his gunmen are still fighting to control. The general had come to survey the battlefield.

With his bodyguards blocking the doors, Guzman instructed about 40 astonished customers to stay seated and refrain from using their cellphones. "Don't be alarmed," he said, according to witness accounts confirmed by the FBI. "Order whatever you want and I'll pay."

When he had finished dining, he plunked down thousands of dollars in cash, stood up calmly and vanished into the night.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°