Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

El Chapo: Another Case for Ending the Drug War

The sordid details of his trial only show that prohibition will enable another kingpin after him.

On Tuesday, the jury in the federal court of Brooklyn found Joaquin El Chapo Guzmán guilty of all 10 counts of the drug trafficking offenses that had been brought against him. For good reason, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel will likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

However, Chapo’s incarceration leaves us with absolutely no confidence that any of the underlying socio-economic or market-driven conditions that contributed to his criminal empire will at all diminish because of his demise.

If anything, the three-month-long trial left us with the disquieting conclusion that if this man, who was born into dire poverty and equipped with only a third-grade education, could overcome the billions of dollars the government has pumped into the drug war over the last 40 years, then anyone with a basic level of cunning and ruthlessness could.

The three-month trial revealed too many sordid details to enumerate here. The prosecution was armed with 117,000 recordings, 300,000 pages of evidence, and 56 witnesses who provided 200 hours of testimony. The defense called just one witness and questioned him for less than half an hour before concluding their case.

Instead, it’s easier to acknowledge the elements of spectacle associated with the proceedings. Alejandro Edda, the actor who portrays El Chapo in the Netflix series Narcos: Mexico, was present in the courtroom one day. El Chapo even smiled and waved at him.

More seriously, the trial provided a grim inside view of the real life corruption that makes this black market work profitably. Cue testimony from one of El Chapo’s mistresses, Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez. She was a legislator in Sinaloa who was tasked with money laundering and finding new marijuana suppliers in Mexico. Sanchez couldn’t control her emotions during her testimony, much to the audible amusement of Guzmán’s wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro.

The defense aptly pointed out that several of these witnesses testified as part of cooperation agreements to have their sentences reduced. Hence, they had an incentive to not be entirely truthful. El Chapo’s attorney argued that his client was merely the underling of the less visible but more powerful Sinaloa leader, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García. This harkens back to the lore of the Genovese crime family. “Fat” Tony Salerno was once its presumed leader, even appearing at one point on the cover of Fortune magazine. But he was essentially a decoy for the organization’s true head, Vincent “the Chin” Gigante.

Although El Chapo’s exact ranking in the cartel’s hierarchy may be contestable, there’s no doubt as to the prowess of his organization.

One of the key witnesses, Miguel Angel Martinez, was a lieutenant in the Sinaloa cartel who earned $1 million a year. Martinez testified that the cartel tried to buy a Mexican company, “La Comadre,” that produces canned chili peppers, which are approved by the FDA for importation. Although the company was never acquired, the cartel simply produced counterfeit labels, which allowed them to smuggle 25 to 30 tons of cocaine across the border.   

That penchant for forgery also enabled El Chapo’s jet-set lifestyle. According to Martinez, he had several counterfeit IDs, including a fake U.S. visa. He owned four jets, a yacht, and a ranch in every Mexican state. Like Pablo Escobar, he even had a private zoo.

El Chapo waged war with rival cartels to gain key territory in the distribution chain. However, this bloodshed wasn’t always in the quest for a larger market share. The battles were sometimes based upon petty grievances. They left an untold number of people dead and communities decimated.

The jury heard testimony from Jesus (El Rey) Zambada García, the brother of El Chapo’s partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García. El Rey explained that the Sinaloa Cartel’s war with the Juarez Cartel unfolded after El Chapo ordered the murder of a cartel leader, Rodolfo Carrillo Fuentes, because he’d refused to shake El Chapo’s hand.  

El Rey also testified that he’d once paid $250,000 to a member of the Mexican army to abort a mission aimed at capturing El Chapo. However, that money pales in comparison to the unrelated bribes he allegedly paid to higher-level government officials, including a top aide to the current President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

The jury also heard a breakdown of the Sinaloa Cartel’s hierarchy. It isn’t the typical vertical organization that many would expect. Instead, it has a horizontal structure in which leaders, such as El Chapo and El Mayo, pool their resources to purchase drugs from suppliers throughout the world.

El Rey (a trained accountant) was exact as he rattled off the different wholesale prices of illegal drugs, depending upon the city in the United States. He acknowledged that his warehouse in Mexico City processed 80 to 100 tons of cocaine annually.

Bear in mind, the coca plant isn’t grown in Mexico. It is essentially exclusive to the climate and conditions of the Andean region, particularly Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia.

The jury also listened to testimony from Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, a former leader of the North Valley cartel, a successor group of the Cali cartel. According to Ramirez, El Chapo required a higher commission (40 percent as opposed to the market rate of 37 percent) for courier services. He charged such a premium because his connections enabled him to deliver the goods with better consistency and reduced transit time.

El Chapo also established a unique business relationship with a Medellin supplier, the Cifuentes-Villa organization. This is a crime family in the literal sense. In fact, Alex Cifuentes Villa moved in with El Chapo in 2007 as essentially human collateral. His presence forced the family to maintain orderly relations. In turn, he verified that El Chapo was sending the correct payments back to Colombia, which added up to $40 million per month.

After their arrests, both Alex and his brother Jorge flipped and became government witnesses. Alex’s most explosive charge was that El Chapo paid a $100 million bribe to the former Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto.   

One person who seemingly no longer wanted to be a part of the family business was Vicente “El Vincentillo” Zambada Niebla. He’s the son of “El Mayo,” and was the heir apparent to the throne. Unlike most of the government’s witnesses, he turned himself in to the U.S. authorities.

Here’s where it gets interesting. El Vincentillo claimed he had worked as an informant for the DEA for years, offering information about rival organizations before his arrest. Likewise, there is some evidence of Sinaloa Cartel members providing information about their rivals to the DEA. However, the judge refused to allow any such references into the record during this trial.

On the other hand, El Chapo’s sons, Juan and Ivan, aka “Los Chapitos,” waged bloody warfare for control of the organization after El Chapo was recaptured in 2016. Apparently, El Chapo considered Dámaso López Núñez, “El Licenciado,” a better successor than his own family. (El Licenciado was a top official in the prison that El Chapo escaped from in 2001. He subsequently transitioned into a high-level cartel leader.)

El Licenciado’s rivalry with Los Chapitos resulted in many casualties that weren’t limited to just gang-versus-gang violence. For merely publishing an unflattering article that dishonored Los Chapitos, the internationally recognized journalist Javier Valdez was murdered outside the office of his newspaper.

Mexico is one of the most violent places in the world for journalists, a grim consequence of the narco state. Last year, the homicide rate reached a record level in Mexico. This was particularly visible in the border towns where a power vacuum has occurred in the absence of El Chapo. For instance, officials estimate that 85 percent of the homicides in Tijuana are related to drug trafficking.

Remarkably, there were a staggering 132 politicians or candidates murdered during last year’s campaign cycle. Often these murders were tied to organized crime. Either through intimidation or greed, there’s no reason to believe that the corruption enabling drug trafficking has diminished.

And don’t think it ends at the border. Over 500 U.S. Border Patrol agents have charged with drug and corruption charges over a two-year period. That’s in addition to nearly 200 Department of Homeland Security officials and contractors who have been caught accepting bribes.  

Nor is there any evidence that America’s insatiable demand for illegal drugs has subsided. In fact, the largest seizure of fentanyl (254 pounds) in U.S. history was made last month in the border town of Nogales, Arizona. Furthermore, a record-setting bust with 1.7 tons of meth was captured in Los Angeles earlier this month.

Of course, it’s great news when someone like El Chapo—an agent of addiction, corruption, and death many times over—is taken off the streets. But his story only proves that the war on drugs is a Sisyphean pursuit. There are literally thousands of criminals fighting to take his place and one or more of them will likely succeed.

Brian Saady is the author of four books. That includes his series, Rackets, which chronicles the legalization of drugs and gambling, and the decriminalization of prostitution. You can check out his podcast and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.