Joaquin 'Chapo' Guzman: the Mexican drug lord adept at playing the system
Head of the Sinaloa cartel rose to the top through a combination of political nous and ruthlessness, writes Ed Vulliamy
22 February 2014
Three decades of careful strategy, political nous and ruthlessness have seen Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman rise to his deserved status as the world's biggest criminal, in charge of its most formidable narcotrafficking syndicate.
To understand Guzman -- arrested overnight in Mazatlan  -- and his Sinaloa cartel, we must return to the year 1978, when the founding father of modern Mexican drug trafficking, Pedro Aviles Perez, was killed during a shootout. Aviles' place was taken by his closest protege, Miguel angel Felix Gallardo, who founded the Guadalajara cartel, and became the Mexican Godfather -- the nearest Mexico has had to the dons of Sicily's Cosa Nostra.
Gallardo built a pyramid of power, based upon trafficking Colombian cocaine into the US at levels of commission, and with sufficient ferocity, to make him the master, not servant, of his wholesalers in Medellin and Cali. Gallardo operated what in Italy is called "Pax Mafiosa", whereby other syndicates, politicians and law enforcement know their place in the scheme of things, and the product keeps flowing.
Gallardo established a modus operandi with the country's ruling Institutional Revolutionary party, a convivial relationship whereby his cartel delivered votes in return for a blind eye, and enjoyed control over substantial constituencies of the federal and state police forces. He "franchised" the smuggling "plazas" across the US border to various of his lieutenants -- apart from, crucially, the tropical Rio Grande valley at Tamaulipas, over which he reached an accord with the emergent Gulf cartel.
But in 1985, this arrangement was tested by pressure from the United States, after the torturing to death of an agent for the US Drugs Enforcement Administration, Kiki Camarena, by Gallardo's men, with involvement, it emerged, of the CIA. Washington demanded action from Mexico -- and that action was to arrest Gallardo.
For a while, Gallardo continued his rule, with directions to a "Cupola" of syndicates in Acapulco. But the old guard was in trouble, the plazas restless, and the underworld could not proceed through such a momentous event as the pyramid's decapitation without the shattering of "Pax Mafiosa".
The cartel spilt, and rival syndicates staked their claim to the plazas of the north. In Tijuana, nephews of Gallardo claimed his mantle, to found the Arellano Felix Organisation. A lucrative stretch of desert east of California was taken by the Beltran Leyva brothers. In Ciudad Juarez, Amado Carillo Fuentes -- "Lord of the Skies" -- staked his territory. The Gulf cartel was born, and formed an enforcement wing, Los Zetas, to claim the north-east.
These men (apart from the Gulf) were all from Sinaloa originally, but one man alone remained based in the narco-capital state, and one man alone -- a nephew of the original Pedro Aviles himself -- claimed the entire border. That man was Joaquin Guzman.
The story of Mexico's narco carnage has been one, in part, of Guzman picking off his rivals, one by one. The 1990s were marked by his war against Carillo Fuentes in Juarez; the present bloodbath -- which has claimed 100,000 victims with up to 70,000 missing -- began in December 2006, when president Felipe Calderon -- of the National Action party -- sent in the army to try to stamp out an embryonic war between Guzman and the Gulf cartel in the world's busiest trade crossing, at Nuevo Laredo.
Guzman won his turf battles from Tijuana to Juarez and imposed the Sinaloa's sovereignty -- but he still fights what has become a war of attrition against the Zetas, who have become their own paramilitary cartel, in the north-east and across Mexico, central America and by proxy in Colombia.
Guzman's genius, and the key to his success, is also that which marks him out from the Zetas: his ability to play the system -- political at home, and financial internationally. Guzman maintained his mentor Aviles' system, and that of Gallardo: he never declared war on the state, as have the Zetas, but existed alongside it, entwined with it. He has even controlled whole slices of it. No drug lord has his own hangar at the capital city's international airport, right by that of the president of the Republic, by playing cops and robbers.
Guzman was captured in 1993 and, as the lore has it, escaped from jail in 2001 in a laundry truck. But a recent book by Mexico's leading journalist and author on matters narco, Anabel Hernandez, proved, citing documents and video footage, that he had walked out in police uniform, with a police escort, the day after
ministers and senior law enforcement officials had arrived at the prison to "react" to his "escape".
This is entirely logical. It has long been the subject of informed commentary -- and a taunt from Los Zetas -- that the government has favoured Guzman's cartel, increasingly desperate to restore the 'Pax Mafiosa' as the violence intensifies and tears Mexico apart. Reformation of the shattered pyramid operated by Gallardo is seen by many as any government's only chance of a possible exit from the bloodletting.
This was said to be an unwritten policy of the Institutional Revolutionary party -- and certainly a reason for voters' preferences -- in its return to power under current president Enrique Peña Nieto. Recent high-profile arrests have mainly been of Guzman's rivals, focussing on the Zetas; at times it almost looked as though the forces of state were fighting alongside the Sinaloa cartel.
Internationally, Guzman's dazzling masterstroke was to deal with the fortunes amassed by the Sinaloa cartel by finding mainstream banks through which to launder amounts of money that were simply too great to remain in Mexico. Two investigations in the United States, and subsequent settlements, showed the Wachovia bank -- now a subsidiary of Wells Fargo -- and British-based HSBC, the biggest bank in Europe, to be facilitating, over many years, the movement of hundreds of billions of dollars in Guzman's profits from narco traffic and the violence that accompanies it. Both banks admitted their guilt and were fined, but no bankers were charged, tried or jailed.
But even with these spectacular connections to the national and global establishment, on the ground there was one important way in which it has seemed too late to impose a return to the Pax Mafiosa -- ergo, control of traffic by one cartel, while the government goes after its rival to look as though the US-baked "war on drugs" is still being fought. This was the power of the Zetas.
While Guzman's authority is based on an old, pyramidal, command system of criminal syndicate, that of Los Zetas is based upon unbridled ferocity, narco insurgency and opportunism in the market -- dealings in oil, human and migrant trafficking, tourism and non-narco ventures. No one expected the paramilitary army to put up such a fight as the Zetas have done, and the question remained and remains: what to do with them?
Now Guzman is captured again, and it will take a while for the fallout to reveal clues as to the Mexican government's motive for bringing in the man on whom it depends, to no small degree, if it is to defeat Los Zetas. It may be that Guzman has calculated that he is safer (from the Zetas and others) and perhaps even more powerful in custody than ostensibly on the run. It may be that a deal has been struck whereby Guzman co-operates against Los Zetas -- who are his real adversaries -- with the authorities, who are not, in return for a laissez-faire approach to his cartel.
The Sinaloa cartel has enough lieutenants on the outside to easily continue its formidable global operation, answerable to Guzman on the inside. Last time he was in jail, he consolidated, built and ran his empire -- just as his role model Pablo Escobar, the Colombian king of cocaine, did -- only Guzman did so with official blessing.
Guzman's status as a prisoner last time round was special -- with access to luxuries, prostitutes and drugs -- to such a degree that his extended family would join him to enjoy wild, days-long Christmas parties in prison, authorised, as Anabel Hernandez shows, at the highest political level.
One thing is for certain this weekend: Guzman's power will not wither with his arrest. What is never certain in Mexico is where the next carnage will fall -- only that it will, for Mexico's war is not only Mexico's business, it is the world's, as long as Europe and America cherish their insatiable need for drugs, and the business thrives -- the profits banked -- with impunity. In that landscape, Chapo's arrest is just another stepping stone.
Ed Vulliamy is author of Amexica: War Along the Borderline,  winner of the Ryszard Kapuscinski award for literary reportage