Jurisprudence

The End of El Chapo

The trial of drug lord Joaquín Guzmán has exposed the unlikely folk hero for what he really is.

Courtroom sketch of Liskamm pointing at Guzmán in court.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Liskamm points at the accused Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán while delivering rebuttal during the trial of Guzmán in federal court in New York City on Jan. 31. Jane Rosenberg/Reuters

Mexican drug lord Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán, the notorious leader of the Sinaloa cartel, has long been a cultlike figure in some parts of Mexico. He’s far from the first crime boss to achieve folk hero status, but he’s an unusual candidate for it. Unlike flamboyant figures like Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar, Guzmán shunned the spotlight ever since he began a criminal career that spanned three decades. In the Colombia of the 1980s, Escobar’s voice was everywhere. Not satisfied with being the leader of the Medellín cartel, Escobar sought social acceptance and political notoriety. Guzmán, on the other hand, never wanted any attention. In fact, before he chose to record an interview with actor Sean Penn for a supposed movie based on his turbulent life, Mexicans had only heard Guzmán’s voice once before, when he was initially captured and jailed in 1993 and claimed, with the peculiar, revving accent typical of northern Mexico, that he was merely a “corn and bean farmer,” not a drug dealer.

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Guzmán’s elusiveness added to his celebrity. After his escape from the Puente Grande prison where he was first held, urban legends began to make the rounds in Mexico. A recurring example had “Chapo” calmly walking into a restaurant (preferably seafood) and sitting for a meal while his lieutenants closed the doors and requested other customers’ cellphones. After a couple of hours of undisturbed dining, Guzmán would leave, but not before paying everyone’s bill. This sort of tale of benevolence and generosity earned him undeserved notoriety, which only grew when, after he was captured again in 2014, he managed to escape from Mexico’s highest-security prison through an underground tunnel dug right under his bathroom. Through it all, Guzmán managed to amass a fortune that, in the underworld of Mexico’s narcoculture, turned him into a perplexing aspirational figure: Narcocorridos (“drug ballads”) and television shows seemed to laud his exploits with delusional glee, as if the man in question were not the head of a brutal criminal organization but a Sinaloan Robin Hood. Joaquín Guzmán Loera transformed into “El Chapo”—good ol’ shorty.

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Guzmán’s dramatic ongoing trial in a Brooklyn federal court should put an end to this romantic nonsense. Guzmán, who is 61 years old, is accused of smuggling billions of dollars’ worth of narcotics into the United States and faces 10 counts of drug and conspiracy charges. If found guilty, Guzmán would probably receive a life sentence to be served at a maximum-security facility. Well-deserved punishment, to be sure. But legal consequences are not enough for a figure like Guzmán. Among Mexicans, at least, the trial should also erase the adoring mythology around “El Chapo.”

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The procedures in Brooklyn have uncovered a man whose sole drive has been to take advantage of Mexico’s fragile judicial, political, and social institutions to further his own criminal ambitions. Guzmán corrupted or attempted to corrupt every level of government in Mexico, suborning terrified mayors, buying entire police forces and corrupting public officials including, according to at least one blockbuster statement during the trial, at least two Mexican presidents (both men deny the accusations). He shrewdly joined forces with Colombia’s cartels to build an ambitious criminal network that transformed Mexico into the epicenter of the drug trafficking world. Guzmán’s toxic empire was built on brutality. Testimonies at the trial recounted episodes of extortion, torture, murder, and astounding cruelty.

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Jurors also learned of Guzmán’s deeply flawed character. In one of the trial’s most awkward moments, Lucero Sánchez, Guzmán’s alleged mistress, described the drug lord escaping naked through a tunnel, just narrowly avoiding capture. Guzmán’s moral failings went well beyond mere comic philandering. The trial also helped uncover allegations that Guzmán procured young girls he would drug and then rape. Guzmán would refer to the girls, some as young as 13, as his “vitamins.”

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This is not a man who deserves a nickname or any other term of endearment. The real Joaquín Guzmán is not the humble farmer he described in Puente Grande, a good Samaritan who helped others in his native Sinaloa. He is, in fact, the complete opposite: a man personally responsible for thousands of deaths during Mexico’s decadelong war on drugs and, through his Sinaloa cartel, a ruthless criminal who helped poison millions of people in Mexico, the United States, and elsewhere. Joaquín Guzmán built a perverse empire through the suffering of others. He does not deserve a nickname. “El Chapo” should be no more.

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