“He was our Osama”, a Mexican intelligence official told me a few minutes after we both learned of Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman’s arrest in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, a beautiful seaside town roughly 200 miles south from Badiraguato, where Guzmán was born in 1954. The comparison is not far-fetched. Bin Laden and Guzman were not only brutal, successful criminals. They were both extremely resourceful and made an art form out of hiding in plain sight.
Ever since his dramatic escape from prison in 2001, “El Chapo” had been everywhere and nowhere. Mexican journalists got used to multiple reports of “El Chapo” sightings. He had been seen in Guatemala. Some said he had moved to Europe. People said he never slept in the same place for longer than a couple of days.
A journalist in Durango once told me that “El Chapo” regularly came down from the mountains along the Triangulo Dorado (the golden triangle, the legendary drug hotspot in northern Mexico) to have lunch in a couple of restaurants he particularly liked. Legend has it he always ate the same thing, ordered cell phones temporarily confiscated and – oh, so generous! — paid everyone’s bill.
In Sinaloa, his home state, stories like these abound. In a place where narcoculture is almost mainstream, “El Chapo” brought about his own peculiar mythology. And he did so by becoming, at the same, the most successful “CEO of Crime” (like Fusion masterfully dubbed him in a recent documentary) and, for all practical purposes, a ghost. Just like Bin Laden, he had only a tight inner circle of people he trusted. He became wary of technology, keenly aware of the dangers of communicating openly with the outside world. All the while, he was there and not there, dead and alive. He was Sinaloa’s very own Schrödinger’s cat.
By 2006, “El Chapo” had been on the run for five years. In that time, he had turned the infamous “Sinaloa cartel” into a criminal behemoth. The cartel owned Mexico’s northwest and had every intention of expanding. Guzman’s men had started carrying out a violent takeover of the border, especially two crucial hubs: Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. By the time Felipe Calderón came to power, the cartel’s power resembled a parallel state. It was this dispute of the US-border – along with a similarly severe crisis in the state of Michoacán and the growing influence of other cartels in the northeast – that prompted the beginning Calderón’s bloody war on drugs. From the very beginning, Calderón’s government focused on one particular strategy: the capture (or targeted killing) of the country’s kingpins. Despite the criticism of a number of experts who argued that cutting off the head of a criminal organization would only lead to a hydra-like reproduction of other, more violent leaders, officials presented a list of Mexico’s 37 most-wanted drug lords. After six years, the government captured or killed 22 of the men on the list. In the final months of 2012 and during the first few of Enrique Peña Nieto’s government in 2013, the two leaders of the violent Zeta cartel also fell. Through it all, though, one man seemed immune to Mexican (and, clearly, American) efforts: Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
The Mexican government’s failure to locate and capture Guzmán raised eyebrows fairly quickly. In Mexico — never a country to shy away from juicy conspiracy theories — people started talking of a possible pact: the government was protecting Sinaloa, having chosen the cartel as the acceptable “Godfather” of Mexican organized crime. It’s difficult to know if the infamous “understanding” was true or not, but the fact remained: for years, “El Chapo” seemed unreachable, lost in the mountains of Durango and Sinaloa. Not now, though. After 13 years of Pynchon-like invisibility, Guzmán’s face popped-up on the front page of The New York Times: torso bared, bushy, black mustache in place, teary-eyed. There’s no blood on his face, but he appeared bruised. He seemed to be kneeling, probably handcuffed. He looked unmistakably like a common criminal. Less of a ghost, less of a CEO: just a man on the run. A legend no longer. “Our Osama”.
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A Mexican journalist and author. He's the main anchor for Univision's KMEX in Los Angeles.