Chapo’s Rise: From poor, abused to cartel kingpin
Then there were the tunnels. "You could call him the godfather of tunnels along the border," said Kirkpatrick, the Customs agent at the 1990 discovery.
That passageway was the first of many linked to Guzman. About a half-dozen other tunnels were found in ensuing years in California and Arizona that ran the length of several football fields and were equipped with hydraulic lifts and electric rail cars. One stretched 1,400 feet from Tijuana, Mexico, to a warehouse near San Diego, according to court records.
By the early 1990s, the DEA considered Guzman among Mexico’s top 10 drug traffickers, but the Mexican organizations were a secondary concern to Colombia’s Medellin and Cali cartels, said Robert Bonner, who headed the DEA from 1990 to 1993. The Mexicans were mere "transporters" for the Colombians, he said.
All of that changed when Gallardo’s group started taking payment in cocaine instead of cash, slowly gaining control of the cocaine chain stretching from South America to the United States. Then Medellin’s Pablo Escobar was killed in late 1993, and the Mexicans eventually overtook the Colombians.
Guzman and his cohorts became known as the Sinaloa Cartel, and they waged an increasingly bloody war with a gang of former allies, the Tijuana-based cartel run by the Arellano Felix brothers. The feud made global headlines in May 1993 when gunmen said to be hunting Guzman opened fire on a car carrying a Catholic cardinal, blasting the prelate 14 times at close range.
The slaying jolted Mexican officials out of their longtime tolerance of, and complicity with, Guzman and his allies. They put out a $5 million reward for information. Though Guzman fled to Guatemala, he was arrested less than a month after the cardinal’s killing.
His case filled 14 volumes of evidence on a variety of crimes — among them drug-smuggling, murder and involvement in the cardinal’s killing. In 1995, Guzman was convicted and sent off to a prison in Guadalajara, where many thought he’d never be heard from again.
They would be wrong.
On Jan. 19, 2001, with 12 years left on a 20-year sentence, Guzman crawled into a laundry cart and was wheeled out of prison by a guard, according to the ex-DEA agent Vigil. Guzman ordered the guard to stop their getaway car at a convenience store and then vanished into the night.
The escape fueled Guzman’s near-mythical status, and he grew ever more powerful.
He solidified his distribution networks in Los Angeles and Chicago, which became the Sinaloa Cartel’s main U.S. hubs. He expanded to Europe and Australia, sending emissaries to develop local contacts who knew whom to bribe and how to set up distribution networks.
To ferry cocaine from Colombia, he began using private airstrips in Guatemala, then moved the drugs over land to the U.S., where authorities say he controlled roughly half the 1,954-mile U.S.-Mexico border. He used a Boeing 747 jet, trucks, cars, boats and rail cars to move his drugs, according to one federal indictment in Chicago. From that city, drugs spread west to Vancouver, British Columbia, and east to Philadelphia and New York.
After the U.S. cracked down on methamphetamine production, Guzman expanded to that market, importing chemicals from Asia and Europe to giant labs in Sinaloa.
As Mexican authorities killed or arrested his rivals, Guzman stayed on, his hold on the trade growing seemingly stronger even after then-President Felipe Calderon launched an offensive against the cartels in 2006.
All the while, he evaded capture, sparing no expense on communications gear and developing a security apparatus to rival that of some countries, said one senior U.S. law enforcement official. As a result, he moved freely, attending family bashes and marrying a beauty queen, Emma Coronel, in 2007 at a well-attended party in Sinaloa. (In all, Guzman is said to have at least nine children with three women.)
Guzman outlasted contemporaries by forging temporary alliances with other traffickers and sharing intelligence on rivals with government officials who killed or arrested them, said David Shirk, associate political science professor at the University of San Diego.
"The Sinaloa Cartel brought economies of scale and organizational capacity but, most importantly, they knew how to knock out their rivals," Shirk said. "There’s more to this than knowing how to hide the drugs. It’s about good intel and good working relations with the authorities."