In the early hours of January 8, 2016, Mexican authorities apprehend the drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. It was the third time that the law caught up to El Chapo, a figure whose crimes, influence and mystique rival those of Pablo Escobar.
Guzmán became involved in the drug trade as a child, dealing in cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and amphetamines. He became the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, the wealthiest and most powerful cartel in Mexico. After his arrest in Guatemala in 1993, Guzmán was extradited to Mexico and sentenced to over 20 years in prison. While incarcerated, he continued to run the cartel and lived comfortably, having bribed much of the staff. In 2001, when a Mexican Supreme Court ruling increased the likelihood that he would be extradited to the United States, Guzmán escaped by hiding in a laundry cart – over 70 people, including the director of the prison, have been implicated in his escape.
Guzmán remained at large for over a decade, leading the cartel through a vicious series of conflicts with the government and rival cartels. One of the central conflicts revolved around Guzmán’s bloody and ultimately successful bid for control over the Ciudad Juárez routes that transport drugs into the United States. Guzmán became infamous for his cartel’s extreme violence and its extensive network of tunnels and distribution cells on both sides of the border. It was widely known that the Sinaloa Cartel had a number of informants and agents within the Mexican government, and many in Mexico believed that the government’s war on drugs was actually being waged to eliminate Sinaloa’s rivals.
During this time, Guzmán was understood to be living in the mountainous and sparsely populated Sierra Madre region. He was arrested for a second time in February of 2014 when the Mexican Navy raided a seaside hotel where he had been visiting family. He was placed in a maximum security prison to await trial, but escaped in July of 2015 via an elaborate tunnel nearly one mile long, estimated to have taken over a year and $1 million to build. His escape was a major embarrassment for the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto, and his recapture became a top priority.
Finally, nearly six months later, an operation involving every law enforcement agency in Mexico resulted in a raid of a house in Los Mochis, Sinaloa. Guzmán escaped the house— again through a tunnel—and stole a car, but was captured near the town of Juan José Ríos. It was later revealed that the Mexican government had consulted with the Colombian and American law enforcement agents who tracked down and killed Escobar during the manhunt. In a tacit acknowledgement of its prior missteps, the Mexican government expedited Guzmán to the United States in 2017. He was convicted on a slew of charges and sentenced to life in prison.
Guzmán is currently held at ADX Florence, said to be the most secure prison in the federal penitentiary system, in Colorado. The Mexican Drug War continues, with rivalries within the Sinaloa Cartel and the rise of new cartels contributing to an atmosphere of violence and terror that has persisted even in the absence of the country’s most storied drug lord.