Did El Chapo Want to Get Caught?

A veteran observer of the Sinaloa cartel on the strange circumstances of its kingpin’s capture.

Sean Penn and El Chapo.
Actor Sean Penn shakes hands with Mexican drug lord Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, in Mexico, in this undated Rolling Stone handout photo obtained by Reuters on Jan. 10, 2016.

Courtesy of Handout/Reuters

El Chapo, the Mexican drug lord who heads the Sinaloa cartel, was captured last week in Mexico. The victory for the Mexican government was particularly sweet, coming six months after El Chapo’s escape from prison, a humiliation for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. Now it appears likely that El Chapo, whose real name is Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, will be extradited to the United States. And on Saturday evening, Rolling Stone published a long  story by Sean Penn, who somehow managed to interview El Chapo while he was on the run and who revealed that El Chapo wanted to make a movie about his own life.

To discuss the latest twists in the ever-crazier El Chapo story, I talked to Alejandro Hope, the security and justice editor at El Daily Post and a former intelligence official in Mexico. We discussed whether El Chapo will ever make it to America, the future of the drug war, and what really drives Mexico’s most notorious criminal. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chotiner: Were you surprised El Chapo was captured this soon?

Hope: Yes and no. His capture was inevitable. He was facing an array of forces that no man in Mexican history has ever faced. The Mexican government threw everything at the manhunt, and it also had the close cooperation of the United States intelligence community. Having said that, I was somewhat surprised by the speed at which he was captured. We underestimated the amount of resources, and how big of a humiliation his escape was.

How will his arrest change the status quo in Mexico?

It is an important event on two fronts. He is a symbol of impunity. Bringing him to justice is an important step. But more importantly, we are moving to a different era in Mexican organized crime. We are seeing more diverse and smaller gangs that are far more local. They are into things like extortion, kidnapping, theft, and less involved in international drug markets. El Chapo is one of the remnants of an earlier period of Mexican organized crime. He’s definitely not the future. So this marks an important step.

But is that step toward more fragmentation good for Mexico?

Over the long run, yes. It is easier to battle predatory crime than transactional crime. Predatory means any crime where you have a direct victim: kidnapping, extortion, using violence for resources. Transactional is like drug trafficking. There is no direct victim and both parties in the exchange are committing a crime. That is far more difficult to combat for the rather simple reason that no one will go to the authorities. You need intelligence-heavy law enforcement for that. Kidnapping and extortion are a challenge, but less of a challenge than large-scale drug organizations that can buy chunks of the state.

There is a theory out there that having El Chapo run his organization is, on the whole, better for Mexico because he is comparatively less violent than his rivals and allows for more stability. Do you think the Mexican government was sincerely committed to his capture?

Yes I do, because the escape was such a blow to the Nieto administration. The president’s approval rating reached a nadir.

In the Sean Penn article, there are hints that there was some level of cooperation between the military and El Chapo’s people.

They are not mutually exclusive. You could have high-level people really going after him, and have low-level corruption in the military establishment.

One thing that surprised me about the capture was that he was taken alive. I assumed the order would have been given or passed along that having him in prison again could lead to another humiliation, and extraditing him might be politically unpalatable. Did that surprise you?

To some extent, but I think there are two reasons why he had to be presented alive. One is that the United States was very involved in this fight, and they wanted El Chapo alive and extradited because he is a massive source of information. And secondly, I don’t think it would have been credible to Mexican public opinion if he had been killed. I don’t think people would have believed it.

So there would have been doubt?

Hugely. Even now you have rumors that this wasn’t El Chapo. Killing him would have been far worse.

Do you think he will be extradited?

Yeah. And for the first time the Mexican government is actually strongly signaling that it is its preference.

Will there be a political backlash to that?

Not really. There are very few voices out there calling for El Chapo to remain in Mexico.

Is that because of the “oh-shit-we-can’t-deal-with-this” factor after the last escape?

Completely. It proved that there is no prison in Mexico which can hold him.

If he is transferred to a maximum security prison in the United States, I assume he will not be able to keep control over his operations, whereas in Mexico he might have been able to.

Yeah. During his 15 months in prison, he had 440 visits. The guy was in close contact with his minions outside.

What do you make of that? How do you understand that in terms of the Mexican state? Was the president aware of that, do you think?

He’s aware now. Was he aware at the time? I’m not sure. The fact was that prison conditions for El Chapo became increasingly relaxed as time went by. There was open corruption, and he had a smart and very aggressive legal strategy fighting for a sort of habeas corpus. So El Chapo used that aggressively and won a number of privileges in the courts, including more visits.

What will El Chapo’s capture mean for his organization?

The Sinaloa cartel probably will not fragment any time soon even if he is extradited. His co-leader, “El Mayo,” is still free. He might be able to maintain some level of coherence. And you do have a second-tier leadership that might also prevent a full-blown implosion of the cartel. Over the longer term, once El Mayo dies or retires or is imprisoned—and the guy is 67—you might see a succession battle, which might lead to the end of the Sinaloa cartel as we know it. But we are not probably close to that point.

I’m sure this is the first interview you have ever done where someone has asked you about Sean Penn. What did you make of his story?

What I found most impressive was how unimpressive El Chapo’s answers were.

You mean he has been built up as larger-than-life and in fact he is somewhat blah?

Yeah. The guy didn’t say anything. The answers coming from his mouth could have come from any street dealer. Penn didn’t ask the tough questions or get into the mind of El Chapo.

What would you have asked him?

I would have asked him about some of the relevant episodes in the drug wars over the past 15 years, including why he broke with his longtime partners, the Beltrán-Leyva brothers. Why did he choose to wage battle where he did? When did he decide to escape? How does he see the future of his organization?

It sounds like you want to understand what drives him. What do you think drives him, besides money?

Money and power, but if you look at the interview and the movie project, it is such an imprudent move for a man who is the object of a massive manhunt. It is so out of character that it may lead to some insights into his style. Maybe age and life on the run had finally got to him. And maybe he wanted a way out, and this was a subtle form of signaling. I think he is getting tired of it.

How would it be a form of signaling? Explain that.

This is speculative, and maybe he was just trying to exercise control and thinking about his legacy, but he might have been signaling the Mexican government that he wanted a deal where he remained in Mexican prison in exchange for information on rival gangs, or perhaps ending his involvement in drug trafficking. In Mexico that has not been used but in Colombia they have done that over the past quarter century. They have given guys a deal of a short sentence to curb some activity.

If he goes to an American prison and is not heard from again, what is his legacy?

In terms of influence, he is up there with Pablo Escobar. But if he goes to prison in America, he will not have a dramatic exit, as Escobar did. My guess is that if he is sent to an American prison, U.S. authorities will do everything in their power to flip the guy and turn him into an informant. They have done it with other drug lords. And that could alter how he is perceived. Right now part of his persona is that he is all-powerful. But to see him humiliated or turned into an informant might change that perception.