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Who Is ‘El Chapo’ And How Did He Become A Dark Legend In Mexico?

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

MEXICO CITY — Chicago compared him to Al Capone. Forbes Magazine listed him as one of the richest men in the world. And in Mexico, he was a renegade outlaw whose exploits were the stuff of legend and song.

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, one of the world’s biggest drug kingpins, gained folklore status during his decade-plus on the lam, evading authorities thanks to his skill at building secret tunnels from his assorted mountain hide-outs, urban safe houses and seaside apartments _ as well as his ability to bribe, cajole and kill.

He was captured in February of last year by the premier agency here, the Mexican marines, a major victory for Mexican government and law enforcement.

Sometime late Saturday, Guzman broke out of a maximum-security prison for the second time, making his way through another tunnel, a mile-long passageway to an empty house under construction 50 miles west of the capital.

Gone again.

Guzman is the head of the Sinaloa cartel, the most powerful of the many drug-trafficking organizations based here.

It was the Sinaloa cartel, under Guzman, that perfected the strategy of partnering with Colombian producers to seize control of the entire drug distribution system, becoming the largest brokers for marijuana, cocaine and heroin being transported into the United States, Europe and as far as Australia. This eventually enabled Mexican traffickers to become the dominant players in the global, illegal drug game.

His nickname, El Chapo, means “Shorty,” and comes from his relative short stature; he stands a little under 5 feet 5. He is thought to be 56, although there are discrepancies about his age. He is on at least his third known marriage, this to a former Sinaloan beauty queen with whom he had twin baby girls _ in a hospital near Los Angeles _ in 2011.

Farmer turned business entrepreneur, Guzman was first arrested in Guatemala in 1993, extradited to Mexico and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Eight years later, he paid off guards and left hidden inside a laundry cart _ or, so the legend goes. (Some reports say he merely strode out the front door.)

Even as he was a fugitive, sightings of El Chapo were common. The most frequent tale was that he would enter a restaurant with his henchmen, order everyone to turn in their cellphones, then eat and pay the bill for all those present.

Federal indictments for narcotics trafficking and related organized-crime charges have been filed against Guzman in California and Chicago, where authorities labeled him a “public enemy No. 1,” like Capone.

When the Los Angeles Times visited his hometown of Badiraguato, in the highlands of Sinaloa, in 2011, a black SUV immediately began tailing the reporter and photographer. People were reluctant to speak of Guzman, or only spoke in glowing terms. When another Times reporter returned last year, after his arrest, residents feared a wave of unemployment and economic downturn.

Such is his charisma, a vicious criminal to many, a generous benefactor to others.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Screenshot: CNN

We Must Not Let Mexico Become A Failed State

Mass protests have blocked highways, overtaken town squares and disrupted government buildings. Protesters are in their third unrelenting month of marching and organizing, demanding answers for the brutal deaths of the young men.

The latest polls show the president’s approval rating is sinking to new lows, in part, because of the obtuse way the administration is handling the scandal.

No, this is not the United States.

It’s Mexico, a country whose citizens may finally be finding their voice to push back against the political corruption that is endemic to the country.

Even by Mexico’s record, the latest atrocity — the gruesome mass murder of 43 aspiring teachers in late September — is nearly unfathomable.

The story of what happened near the city of Iguala in the poor southern state of Guerrero has been slowly pieced together through confessions as more than 70 arrests have been made — including the mayor of Iguala and his wife, who were found in hiding in Mexico City. Many believe that the mayor ordered the attacks, so that the students — a defiant lot known for their leftist activism — wouldn’t disrupt a speech by his wife, who had her sights on a political career of her own.

The students were from the poorest areas of Guerrero. They attended a teacher’s college, a rural school long known for pressing the concerns of the poor. The students were heading to a demonstration of their own when they were stopped by police and handed over to a drug gang. Some were asphyxiated when they were herded into the back of a truck. Others in the group were shot. The bodies were piled into a pyre, with tires and scraps from a nearby junkyard added for kindling, doused with diesel fuel and torched.

After the bodies burned through the night and into the next day, the ashes were spread into a nearby river. A laboratory in Austria is attempting to identify the dead by examining DNA samples among the recovered remains.

But this case is far from concluded.

In addition to the mass demonstrations in Mexico, there have been solidarity marches in the U.S. for the disappeared students, often outside Mexican consular offices. Yet for the most part, most Americans know little of the story.

Such ignorance must end. Americans are certainly weary of intervening in hotspots around the globe, be it by sending our troops or our money. And, indeed, we’ve learned something sobering in the last decade about our ability to “save the world.”

Yet Mexico’s inability to bring an end to such massive human rights abuses will cripple our southern neighbor as a major trade partner. Don’t like undocumented immigration from south of the border? Well, the best defense is a stable Mexico.

Our gluttony for illicit drugs has helped fuel these horrible murders. Guerrero is known for its heroin and marijuana production. Members of a drug gang known as Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) have been accused in the crime.

Washington has been relatively silent about the deaths of the students. President Barack Obama and members of Congress would rather not take up more moral obligations, or to ruffle the feathers of a trading partner.

But our government must condemn this violence and corruption in no uncertain terms, and follow those words with action.

We need to find ways to shut off the firehose of drug money and other illegal proceeds flowing from North America to Central and South America. If that means legalizing — and taxing and regulating — certain controlled substances, let’s consider it seriously. If it means using economic and diplomatic leverage to force Mexico to clamp down on government corruption, let’s do it. If there are legislative or intelligence means to the same end, let’s consider them.

A prosperous, democratic and tranquil Mexico is in our country’s best interest.

(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO. 64108-1413, or via email at

Photo: Montecruz Foto via Flickr

Prosecutors Unseal Plea Agreement With Mexican Drug Cartel Leader

By Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Just over a year ago, the highest-ranking leader of the notorious Sinaloa drug cartel ever to be arrested on U.S. charges stood in a quiet federal courtroom in Chicago for a secret hearing.

Raising his right hand and speaking through a Spanish interpreter, Vincente Zambada Niebla, a top Sinaloa lieutenant known as “Mayito,” admitted that for years he acted as the key coordinator of a billion-dollar cocaine and heroin operation on behalf of a faction of the cartel run by his father.

Then came the real bombshell: he was cooperating with the U.S. government in its case against his former boss, captured Sinaloa loader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

On Thursday, the events of that April 2013 hearing were made public for the first time as prosecutors unsealed Zambada’s 23-page plea agreement.

While the impact of his cooperation remains unclear, it’s a major breakthrough for federal prosecutors and could boost their efforts to extradite Guzman to Chicago to stand trial. He remains jailed on other charges in Mexico following his apprehension in February.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Zambada faces life in prison, but prosecutors said that if he continues to “provide full and truthful cooperation,” including possible testimony, they will seek an unspecified break in his sentence. As part of the plea deal, Zambada agreed not to fight an order to forfeit a staggering $1.37 billion in ill-gotten proceeds by the cartel.

Zambada, 39, is the son of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who is widely believed to have taken control of the vast Sinaloa enterprise after Guzman’s capture. The younger Zambada was arrested in 2009 in Mexico City on a sweeping indictment charging him, Guzman, his father and other alleged Sinaloa cartel leaders in what is considered the most significant drug case in Chicago history.

Zambada admitted in his plea agreement that between May 2005 and December 2008 he was responsible for many aspects of the Sinaloa cartel’s drug trafficking operations in his role “as a trusted lieutenant for his father.”

According to the plea deal, Zambada coordinated the importation of multi-ton quantities of cocaine from Colombia and Panama into Mexico and facilitated the transportation and storage of the shipments there. The cartel smuggled drugs by jumbo jets, speed boats, submarines, tunnels and other means and used violence and threats against rival cartels and law enforcement in Mexico to facilitate its business, the plea said.

The stunning news of Zambada’s cooperation marked the latest twist in a case that has been filled with intrigue. After Zambada was extradited to Chicago in 2010, authorities at the Metropolitan Correctional Center refused to allow him to exercise in the high-rise’s rooftop yard, citing concern over an assassination attempt or escape by helicopter.

Zambada was later moved to a facility in Michigan and for years he appeared in court in Chicago only via teleconference. After his guilty plea, he was secretly moved to an undisclosed location, authorities said. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons website currently has no record of his whereabouts.

In 2011, his attorneys unsuccessfully tried to get the charges against him thrown out, arguing he’d been granted immunity from prosecution due to his work as an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Prosecutors denied there was any such agreement, and U.S. District Chief Judge Ruben Castillo denied the motion in 2012, court records show.

At the center of the indictment are Pedro and Margarito Flores, twin brothers from Chicago’s West Side who had risen in the ranks of Guzman’s organization before providing key cooperation.

In October 2008, Margarito Flores attended a meeting with Zambada, Guzman and other cartel leaders at a mountaintop compound in Mexico, the charges allege. Flores told authorities that Guzman discussed a plot to attack a U.S. or Mexican government or media building in retaliation for the recent arrest of an associate.

In that same conversation, Zambada turned to Flores and asked him to find somebody who could give him “big, powerful weapons” to help carry out the attack, according to court records.

“We don’t want Middle Eastern or Asian guns, we want big U.S. guns or RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades),” said Zambada, according to Flores’ account of the conversation in court records. “We don’t need one, we need a lot of them.”

Court records show Flores later secretly recorded a telephone conversation with Zambada, telling him the weapons were going to cost twice as much as they’d thought. “That’s fine, just let me know,” Zambada replied, according to court records.

Zambada’s father remains a fugitive, believed to be hiding in the Mexican sierra where the family got its start as ranchers. But his younger brother, Serafin Zambada, was arrested in December and charged in a separate drug trafficking conspiracy in San Diego, records show.

Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/MCT

On Drug Lord’s Mexican Turf, Lines Blur Among Cops, Pols, Cartel

By Tim Johnson, McClatchy Foreign Staff

CULIACAN, Mexico — Walk into the command center of Culiacan’s municipal police department, and you see a huge bank of monitors showing closed-circuit images of street corners, captured by 190 or so all-seeing cameras that rotate and zoom.

Yet in this city of a million or so inhabitants, home turf of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the recently captured crime boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, the cameras and the 1,460 or so transit and street cops seem to miss a lot.

Despite multiple sightings of Guzman and other cartel bosses, police never could spot him. Some residents deem it willful blindness, a sign that lines blur easily among organized crime, police and politicians.

Guzman was captured when naval commandos deployed from faraway Mexico City descended with hot intelligence that the fugitive drug baron was moving from safe house to safe house within the city. As commandos gave chase, they discovered a municipal Dodge Charger police cruiser in a garage at one of his homes.

The Culiacan secretary for public security, Hector Raul Benitez Verdugo, said in an interview that the blue patrol car was a fake. Its call numbers, 19-21, didn’t match any in the city police fleet, he said.

Guzman and bodyguards later fled through a series of tunnels and drainage canals, leaving behind grenades and part of a municipal police uniform.

The commandos finally snared Guzman at dawn on Feb. 22 in an oceanfront condominium in Mazatlan, a two-hour drive from this city.

A local lawyer said it was no surprise that bosses in the Sinaloa Cartel would either co-opt city police or use fake police units to protect themselves.

“It’s a way to camouflage yourself,” said Jesus Cerda Lugo. “If you see a police cruiser, it’s very difficult to know if it’s real or fake. After all, you don’t know all the police in the city.”

If an officer in uniform gives you orders, “and he has a badge, you imagine that he’s real,” Cerda said.

Guzman’s capture has brought new attention to the municipal police forces in Cualican and Mazatlan.

Sunday night, the newspaper El Noroeste in Mazatlan received two telephoned threats minutes after a reporter called police to follow up on a story in a national newspaper, Reforma, that said city police had been protecting Guzman.

“Look, (moron), tell that (jerk) … that we don’t want him talking about the municipal police because we are going to (mess) him up, and you, too, if you (mess) with the police,” the newspaper said a journalist was told. The language was stronger than the revised quotation here.

The facade of El Noroeste was hit with 17 rounds of automatic weapons fire in late 2010, and a headless body was dumped outside the newspaper in July 2011, so such threats are taken seriously.

Mazatlan serves as the playground for the Sinaloa Cartel, while Culiacan, the inland capital, surrounded by fertile agricultural land, is ground zero for bosses under Guzman’s command.

Even if the U.S. Treasury Department listed Guzman as “the world’s No. 1 crime lord,” he didn’t seem to feel the need to stay hidden in Sinaloa’s Sierra Madre range. He regularly came down into the city.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Guzman had lunched earlier this month at the Mar & Sea restaurant on the leafy banks of the Humaya River, not far from central Culiacan. A former state governor owns the restaurant.

It wouldn’t have been the first time Guzman came into the Sinaloa capital to satisfy his craving for haute cuisine. Many city residents have heard similar stories.

One of the deans at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa, who declined to be further identified for his own safety, said a close friend was in a restaurant when either Guzman or Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a co-leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, entered the restaurant.

“He arrived with his security team, which cordoned off the restaurant. They told everyone there to keep eating and drink all that they wanted, that their boss would pay for all meals. But the order was that nobody was to touch their cellphones,” the dean said. “The restaurant stayed sealed up for hours.

“This wasn’t any more than a year ago.”

Corruption among city police is far from unique to Sinaloa state. It’s a problem that has long nettled federal authorities, who want city police under a unified command structure at the federal and state level. Authorities have removed tens of thousands of corrupt municipal police officers in recent years in states such as Baja California, Chihuahua, Michoacan, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas and Veracruz.

In Culiacan, drug lords move about in late-model armored SUVs, but city police don’t seem to spot or stop them.

Asked whether municipal police had ever gotten into a gunfight with traffickers from the Sinaloa Cartel, Benitez Verdugo, Culiacan’s security chief, said, “There has not existed any clash of this kind.”

Benitez Verdugo might seem an unusual pick to lead the police. His wife is the daughter of Pedro Aviles, a legendary marijuana trafficker in Sinaloa in the 1960s and 1970s who was eventually slain.

But then politicians, state prosecutors and senior security officials in Sinaloa frequently must fend off accusations that they’re linked to drug traffickers.

Last June, a longtime police escort for Gov. Mario Lopez Valdez went missing. Weeks later, he appeared in a video uploaded to YouTube alleging, in a calm voice, that he’d accompanied Lopez Valdez shortly after his inauguration in 2011 to a meeting in the mountains with Guzman.

On the video, the escort, Frank Armenta, played wiretapped telephone conversations between the governor and other senior officials, including the state attorney general. The conversations indicated that Lopez Valdez was instructing officials to protect the Sinaloa Cartel and go after its rivals, the Beltran Leyva and Los Zetas trafficking groups, in the northern part of Sinaloa.

In a second videotape released in July, Armenta showed flight logs that indicated that a helicopter — presumably the governor’s — had made at least four trips to La Tuna, the village where Guzman grew up high in the Sierra Madre.

Armenta’s decapitated body appeared on a roadside Aug. 9.

Lopez Valdez has said repeatedly that the videos contain doctored and spliced conversations and that Armenta was forced by his captors to make the tapes.

The governor has spoken little since Guzman’s capture. His spokeswoman didn’t return multiple telephone calls over three days.

When reached by Adela Micha of Radio Imagen earlier this week, the governor stumbled for words about the impact of the capture of such a renowned crime lord in his state.

“What can I say? Congratulations,” Lopez Valdez said.

Photo: Tim Johnson/MCT