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COLUMN ONE

Mexico's Master of Elusion

Since his escape, drug cartel chief Joaquin 'Shorty' Guzman has expanded his empire, waged war on rivals and become a legend.

July 05, 2005|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

Residents who are willing to talk about him are unwilling to give their names. They say the drug baron spreads cash like a benevolent father, paying for public works and medical care for the needy. They say he shuns fancy jewelry, has a wife and several mistresses, comes home frequently and throws catered parties at the ranch but never stays long.

When federal police raided one of his parties, in November 2003, Guzman and his guests had been tipped off and left behind four hapless narco-balladeers of La Sombra Nortena (the Northern Shadow), who had been paid $4,000 to entertain. They and their sound man were arrested on charges of possessing marijuana and a firearm.

Guzman's illicit empire is proof that someone with a third-grade education can rise to the top in Mexico as long as his family is well connected.

A former mistress, Zulema Hernandez, told author Julio Scherer for a book about Mexico's prisons that Guzman felt deprived growing up and was haunted into his adulthood by "a terror of returning to poverty." As a boy, she said, he toiled on his grandfather's farm after his abusive father kicked him out of the house.

Poor or not, Guzman was a nephew of the late Pedro Aviles Perez, a founding father of the Sinaloa drug cartel. He eventually joined its payroll as an overseer of illicit crops.

The cartel's rise in the 1980s marked the birth of large-scale Mexican drug trafficking. Already producing and exporting marijuana and heroin, it took over the shipment of South American cocaine through Mexico to the U.S. Southwest after U.S. authorities closed off air and sea smuggling routes into Florida.

Guzman rose quickly to become the cartel's import manager. It was his job to get planes, boats and trucks full of cocaine into Mexico, while his cousin Hector Palma took charge of moving the drugs by land to clients in the United States.

By 1989, Aviles was dead and cartel co-founder Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo was in prison. The cartel broke up, with Guzman and Palma taking a chunk of the operation that was moving up to 24 tons of cocaine a month, U.S. law enforcement officials say.

Guzman, the dominant of the two cousins, began to gain notoriety for two qualities: brutality and creativity.

Challenged by the Arellano Felix family for control of the cartel, Guzman went to war. The Arellanos, who were related to the imprisoned Felix Gallardo, set up base in Tijuana. In 1992, Guzman sent 40 gunmen to a Puerto Vallarta disco where the Arellanos were partying. Nine people died in the commando-style raid.

Meanwhile, Guzman devised innovative ways to move ever larger quantities of cocaine. He smuggled the powder inside fire extinguishers and set up phony food distribution warehouses so he could move it, truckloads at a time, in cans labeled chili peppers.

"He thinks big," Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Misha Pilastro said. "When Chapo gets involved in a drug deal, we're talking about extremely large quantities. Tons."

First arrested in 1991, Guzman bribed the Mexico City police chief $50,000 to let him go. Later testimony in Mexico alleged that he enjoyed the protection of the country's top law enforcement officials at the time.

His imprisonment in 1993 resulted from his feud with the Arellanos, who had sent gunmen to ambush him at the Guadalajara airport. Instead, they shot the city's Roman Catholic cardinal, Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, whose death brought public pressure on the government to move against the drug barons. Guzman was arrested 16 days later in Guatemala.

Living in luxury at El Puente Grande, the maximum-security prison near Guadalajara, he allegedly kept his hand in business with messages passed through his lawyers. Shortly after Mexico's Supreme Court ruled that he could be extradited to the United States, he escaped.

The prison warden and more than 30 guards were implicated in what one narco-ballad immortalized as the "breakout of the millennium." Mexican officials have been trying to recapture him ever since.

Staying a step ahead of them, Guzman adapted to changes in the drug business during his 7 1/2 -year imprisonment. Facing a federal administration less susceptible to bribery than its predecessors, he has made his operation more mobile and relied on corrupt local officials.

Despite being semiliterate (he once used a ghostwriter to pen love letters to a mistress), he has mastered the Internet as a tool to make multimillion-dollar deals without risky face-to-face meetings, U.S. officials say.

Equally important, Mexican authorities say, he has gained the financial and armed support of key Colombian traffickers who had lost faith in the Mexican cartels as the Fox administration infiltrated their ranks and captured their leaders.

"He was at the top of his game before he went to prison, and it was only a matter of time before he'd get back up there if he stayed alive," a U.S. law enforcement official said. "He's definitely back. He's strong. You can tell from the violence, he's more and more out there."

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