The Stalking of Chapo Guzmán
By Alan Feuer
For those still keeping themselves safe indoors, and those who are perhaps facing a second round of quarantine this fall, here’s a lively, clear and endlessly fascinating story about a trickster who is going to spend the rest of his life in a very small cell, and how he was finally outwitted and brought to justice.
It took an uneasy coalition of United States hackers, spooks and cops, working hand in hand with Mexican marines and a platoon of informants, to bring in the short, stocky (thus “Chapo”) Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the most famous drug trafficker of his time, for what is certain to be his final incarceration. His life is one of those tell-me-again legends: Tell me again how in 1993 Guzmán escaped an assassination attempt by rival drug traffickers in which the archbishop of Guadalajara was shot down in his stead. Let’s hear once more the story of how eight years later Guzmán escaped from a high-security penitentiary in Guadalajara, reportedly in a prison laundry cart. And yes, tell us please, how when he was finally recaptured after all the hard years of work by his pursuers, and put in another ultra-high-security prison not far from Mexico City, his loyal minions dug a mile-long tunnel — equipped with a motorbike too — under the prison and right up to the shower stall in his cell.
“El Jefe,” by the New York Times reporter Alan Feuer, focuses closely on the chase — or, rather, the last two chases: the one that brought Guzmán from a hotel room in his home state of Sinaloa, where his wife and twin daughters were visiting him, to that prison near Mexico City; and the final chase that led Guzmán to a claustrophobic courtroom in the Brooklyn federal courthouse.
[ Read an excerpt from “El Jefe.” ]
To those of us whose fascination with Guzmán was for a time all-consuming, Feuer might seem almost unfairly lucky. A metro reporter who covers courts and criminal justice, he had decided not to attend Guzmán’s trial, feeling that the trafficker’s story had been exhaustively reported. Then, on a whim, he rose early on the trial’s first day, Nov. 13, 2018, and showed up at the courthouse, where unprecedented security measures had been put in place. (Snipers on the rooftops!) He was to spend weeks in that building, sitting almost sneezing distance away from the legend: the supplier of a million kilos of the magic powder that American consumers love almost more than apple pie, the compulsive womanizer, the all-but-illiterate country boy, the strongman behind thousands of murders committed just to keep the cocaine flow going, the escape artist. It’s as if Moby Dick were put in a tank at SeaWorld, and Feuer got invited to a private viewing.
El Jefe himself actually doesn’t appear much in Feuer’s police procedural, except for what we see of him through the electronic eyes and ears of his pursuers, and what we see is already known: The monster is an affectless personality, a vain and paranoid narcissist, stunningly ignorant and yet, paradoxically, also a loving family man, devoted to his children, wives and mistresses. His pursuers in the F.B.I., C.I.A., D.E.A., H.S.I. and other agencies monitor his intimate (and unimaginative) conversations with his underlings and girlfriends, and they understand that all that their electronic gizmos are showing is a reflection of a reflection in a hall of mirrors, but it’s the chase that counts. (For a chilling fictionalized portrait of Guzmán’s world, see the 2011 Mexican film “Miss Bala.”)
Two F.B.I. agents make contact with Guzmán’s genius 21-year-old Colombian communications encrypter and turn him. Over at the D.E.A., Ray Donovan, an agent in special ops, understands that obsessive nerds throughout United States law-enforcement agencies are gathering bits and pieces of surveillance information about Guzmán, and brings the men (they’re all men) together into a fractious coalition. Guzmán dreams of being the subject of a Hollywood movie and also of becoming intimate with the Mexican soap opera star Kate del Castillo. Little does he know that his messages with her have been monitored from the start, and it’s a painful moment when the coalition agents decide that, with the actor Sean Penn tagging along on del Castillo’s trip to Sinaloa to meet her admirer, thus creating a security risk, they have to pass up an otherwise perfect opportunity to bring in the giant whale.
Feuer tells a brisk, compact tale, but he could have used a few pages more to take us to the other side of the wall of mirrors. He could have told, for example, how in the late 1970s, under intense pressure from the United States, the Mexican Army launched Operación Cóndor in the thickly forested Sinaloa mountains, where many of today’s most important traffickers were born. The brutality was overwhelming to impoverished peasants who had found a way out of raw hunger and into peaceful poverty by cultivating marijuana and poppy. Cóndor was a full American-style operation, complete with herbicide-spraying planes, armed helicopters and heavily armored soldiers who marched into the villages brutalizing the local men, dragging them onto trucks, terrorizing the women. The Sinaloa historian Froylán Enciso found legal records of a typical incident from an earlier operation, in 1974, in which women from a settlement just uphill from La Tuna, the village where Guzmán was born, were stripped naked and assaulted by Mexican troops, their money stolen.
Guzmán would have been about 17 at the time, just getting started as a farmer and gopher in the drug trade, and it’s not at all unlikely that he had relatives among the victims of the army’s brutality. The memory of Cóndor’s months of terror — and, of course, the astronomical profits brought into the state from the trafficking of forbidden plants that in normal circumstances would sell for about the price of corn — go a long way toward explaining Sinaloans’ stubborn allegiance to Guzmán, and the freedom with which he roamed, as his children still do, through the state’s mountains and cities. “We’ll have completely eliminated the cultivation of drugs in six months,” the Mexican defense secretary, Hermenegildo Cuenca Díaz, promised at the start of the operation. The real result? Thousands of peasants fled the highland villages, while traffickers realized the benefit of obtaining their supplies from abroad. They became shippers for Colombian traffickers and inaugurated the cocaine boom.
On the one hand, the capture of Guzmán could be seen the way Feuer sees it here: as the triumph — at last, at last! — of Wile E. Coyote over the much more wily Road Runner, and “El Jefe” makes a thrilling tale of the chase and the inventive use of all those Acme-like products — the scanners and tappers and mappers and scramblers. On the other hand, is that hungry, aged Coyote ever going to take the measure of the Road Runner population out there? Does he not realize there are thousands of those damn birds, that the roads and pathways of the land are infested with them and always will be, so long as their ecosystem doesn’t change? What if instead of Operación Cóndor the representatives of local and national governments stopped taking narcomoney? What if instead of helping to terrorize campesinos throughout Latin America, the United States spent less on shiny toys for corrupt local armies and more on funding local infrastructure and education programs? What if drugs were legal and sold in boring pharmaceutical dispensaries?
Feuer, perhaps wisely, chooses to avoid the big questions and sticks to his story. It’s a good one.