The guards at the city club mall in downtown Culiacán refused to talk about the bullet holes in the parking lot. Or about the cross stuck into the pavement, inscribed with three pairs of initials and a melancholy tribute in Spanish: WE WILL LOVE YOU ALWAYS. But almost anyone in this city of 1 million could tell you what happened here a little before 9 p.m. on May 8, 2008: how three men climbed unawares into their white SUV after shopping at the mall; how three other cars zoomed up then unleashed a fusillade of AK-47 gunfire and a single blast from a bazooka. All three men were killed, two of them bodyguards for the third, a hulking 22-year-old named Edgar Beltrán Guzman—the son of Joaquín Guzman Loera, better known as El Chapo ("Shorty"), the most wanted man in Mexico.
Culiacán is the bare-knuckle state capital of Sinaloa, laid out between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Madre mountains, about 350 miles northwest of Mexico City. I'd come here, as journalists do, in search of El Chapo. If I hung around long enough, I'd been told, I might catch him at one of his famous restaurant drop-bys. (His bodyguards sweep the room, confiscating all mobile phones before his dramatic entrance; he picks up everyone's tab afterward.) But when I arrived in town in early April, El Chapo hadn't been seen in public since his son's murder. He'd gone underground, thanks in part to President Felipe Calderón's all-out war on the drug cartels—2,500 troops were now based in Culiacán and carrying out daily raids—but also because of a bloody feud with a former close ally and boyhood friend, Arturo Beltrán Leyva.
Earlier this month a shootout between Mexican police and Mochomo's gang left 18 people dead in Acapulco. The same gang allegedly killed El Chapo's son—revenge, it's said, after El Chapo betrayed Mochomo to federal authorities. (Javier Valdez, an investigative reporter who looked into Mochomo's arrest for the respected local newsweekly Rio Doce, believes that the federales talked Guzman into giving up his onetime ally. "The government was saying, 'We need somebody, we want somebody,' so to lower the pressure, El Chapo turned in Mochomo," he says.) In revenge, hundreds of narcotraficantes in Culiacán were killed. Victims were found shot dead in parked cars, decapitated, burned, rolled up in bloody blankets and dumped on the roadside. The satirical monthly La Locha ran a helpful glossary of drug-related terminology, including encobijado (a body wrapped up a blanket), ladrillo (a kilo brick of cocaine) and encajuelado (a corpse stuffed in a trunk).
Matters got so bad that at the end of last year, a state official reportedly trekked up to a ranch in Durango state, deep in the eastern Sierra Madre, and got the jefe and Mochomo's men to agree to a truce. (Government officials acknowledge a peace deal but deny any role in it.) Guzman was said to have gone to ground, holed up at one of his tightly guarded haciendas in the mountains. The Sierra is "wild country, the natural place for El Chapo," says Ismael Bojórquez Perea, the editor of Rio Doce. "He feels good and secure up there."
Culiacán's economy has since gone into a tailspin. Nightclubs, discos and restaurants that had catered to the narcos shut down. The downtown street where chirrines—Mexican horn-and-string bands—once waited to be hired for spontaneous fiestas were dark and deserted. Nobody, I was told, felt much like celebrating. And nobody wanted to talk about El Chapo.
Nobody, that is, except a man I'll call Enrique. Middle-aged, with the rangy build, bronzed complexion and callused hands of a man used to hard labor in the hot sun, Enrique had been acquainted with El Chapo for years and, he said, had spent time with him recently. I checked out as much of his story as possible, and it all holds up. He begged me not to reveal too much about his identity, and he didn't have to explain why.
Together we set out on a two-lane highway east through the Culiacán Valley. The road climbed through bush-covered hills speckled with saguaro cactuses. As we switchbacked into the Sierra, with a hot wind blasting through the windows, Enrique fished his cell phone from his jeans pocket and showed us what he claimed were photos from his recent trip with El Chapo. The drug lord know he's not invulnerable, Enrique said. Earlier this year, soldiers and federal police in Mexico City arrested the 33-year-old son of his longtime business partner Ismael (El Mayo) Zambada García. Then Vincente Carrillo Leyva, son of the Juárez cartel's late leader, Amado Carrillo, was captured during his regular morning run in the capital. The arrests made El Chapo nervous, said Enrique: "He said, 'Those kids were too exposed, living in the city'."
We pulled into Tamazula, a mountain village dominated by a 16th-century Jesuit-built church, an airstrip and an Army camp. El Chapo used to sponsor fiestas in the town plaza, but that was before Calderón flooded the area with troops, Enrique said: "He doesn't feel comfortable here anymore." From this point, steep dirt trails wound through mountains and canyons, navigable only by all-terrain vehicles known here as cuatrimotos. Guzman's lairs lay about four hours farther east, through a zone that Enrique, after conferring with friends in Tamazula, decided was too dangerous for a gringo to enter. With the federal government stepping up its hunt for El Chapo, his guards were being extra-vigilant about unfamiliar faces.
Some would say all of Mexico is El Chapo country. In many respects, Guzman's rise parallels that of Pablo Escobar, who ran Colombia's notorious Medellín cartel before his 1993 death in a hail of bullets. Both were born into poverty and fought their way to the top of the global drug trade. Both made Forbes's list of the world's richest people—Escobar reached No. 7 in 1989, and El Chapo appeared at No. 701 this year. (The magazine estimated El Chapo's personal fortune at $1.1 billion and his cartel's annual revenues at $7.8 billion.) Both men challenged the legitimacy of the state by putting thousands of policemen, soldiers, judges and politicians on their payrolls. Both built grand legends around themselves, beginning with escapes from maximum-security jails. And they cast themselves as high-living Robin Hoods, sharing the proceeds of their crimes with the poor. "The [kids] admire El Chapo because he has women, money, cars, weapons and power," says Josefina de Jesús García Ruiz, secretary of public security in Sinaloa, echoing what was said of Escobar in his heyday. "The average kid in this state sees him as a role model." Escobar's spectacular attacks—including the bombings of an Avianca passenger jet and a Bogotá office building—were his undoing: they shamed Colombia's government into calling in U.S. Special Operations forces to help hunt him down. Is El Chapo destined for a similar fate? "He's a slap in the face" to the Mexican state, says Ralph Reyes, chief of the DEA's Mexico and Central America section, based in Washington. "He escaped from jail, he's on the Forbes list, he's getting all this notoriety. This type of publicity is counterproductive [to him]." Calderón has made the arrest of El Chapo and other top drug figures a priority; he has dispatched 45,000 federal troops and police officers to towns and cities controlled by the cartels, started to clean up the police and judiciary and arrested high-ranking members of his own government, including a former assistant attorney general suspected of feeding intelligence to El Chapo's Pacific cartel. In April President Barack Obama announced a $700 million antinarcotics aid package to Mexico that includes new attack helicopters for the Army, advanced telecommunications equipment, night-vision goggles, body armor and other combat gear. The government's net has recently ensnared some of Mexico's biggest traffickers, including Mochomo and Gregorio Sauceda Gamboa, a founder of the Zetas, a group of renegade former soldiers hired as a paramilitary force by the Gulf cartel, El Chapo's principal rival.
Guzman is currently at war with every other major cartel in Mexico. Some observers say it's because he keeps trying to expand his territory; U.S. officials insist it's because of Calderón's war. "The government has routed these cartels out of their areas of protection. They've moved them into areas where they're not secure and forced them to overlap with rival gangs," says one U.S. official in Mexico City who assists in drug-interdiction efforts and who asked for anonymity for security reasons. In Tijuana, 500 people have died in the past year in government-vs.-cartel confrontations and in the battle between the Pacific cartel and the Tijuana cartel, controlled by remnants of the Arellano-Félix family, for control of the lucrative smuggling route. All told, drug violence in Mexico last year killed 6,290 people.
The carnage has been cited as evidence that Mexico is spiraling into chaos. But those waging war on the cartels say the bloodshed means that the wrongdoers are finally being confronted directly, as in Iraq, where more U.S. troops died in the first months of the surge than at any other time in the war. The cartels, says the DEA's Reyes, have been "accustomed to operating with total power and impunity." Now Calderón's push has forced them to delay cocaine shipments from Colombia for weeks. They're "having trouble not only getting drugs from Mexico into the United States but drugs into Mexico," says Reyes.
The kingpins can partly blame their own hubris: they became too big, too violent, too powerful for the government to ignore. "All of these cartels start with a 'no harm' approach, saying, 'I'm just another businessman.' But ultimately, there is a tipping point that makes them a target," says Mauricio Cárdenas, a former Colombian minister and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue center in Washington, argues, "As long as cartels are just killing each other and not putting into jeopardy the country's security, [it's tolerable]. But this was getting out of control." One Mexican intelligence official told me he's "confident" that El Chapo will be captured within the next year. "El Chapo is quite concerned, and he has a need to be concerned," says the U.S. official in Mexico City. Reyes believes that Guzman "is up against a lot. It's the most pressure he has ever faced."
Over the years, Guzman has made his cartel a vital part of Culiacán's economy, buying up condominiums, restaurants, discotheques, a milk factory and other properties while keeping many other enterprises flush with cash. "Ninety percent of the businesses here are tied to the narcos," I was told by one 33-year-old woman who works for an organization that helps drug addicts, as we cruised the city. Young men in standard narco garb—rhinestone-studded black T shirt, ostrich-leather boots, black shoulder bag likely stuffed with weapons and U.S. dollars, two cell phones strapped to the belt—swaggered along downtown streets. We stopped at a roadside shrine to Malverde—a 19th-century bandit who has become a patron saint to the narcos—and examined handwritten messages from traffickers asking his protection before smuggling cocaine across the U.S. border.
El Chapo was born about 60 miles from Culiacán in the mountain village of Las Tunas, in the heart of Mexico's Golden Triangle. (The name refers to the mountainous region that covers parts of three states: Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa.) Like nearly every other local campesino, his parents scratched out a living by cultivating marijuana and poppies on hillside plots. It was a world of casual violence. "The [sons] start killing chickens as farm boys, and they finish by killing people," says Bojórquez. The boy was a troublemaker who, like Escobar, fell into petty crime. In his 20s he reached out to the powerful Guadalajara cartel, then run by Miguel (El Padrino) Félix Gallardo, and was made a lieutenant in the organization. Unschooled but a natural administrator, Guzman was soon supervising the movement of tons of cocaine and marijuana each month across a network of rural airstrips inside Mexico. After Felix was arrested in 1989, Guzman started his own organization, known as the Federación, with a tight circle of associates who had grown up together in the hills. These men included the Beltrán Leyva brothers (Arturo, Alfredo and Carlos) and Ismael (El Mayo) Zambada García.
Their timing was perfect. U.S. and Colombian authorities had begun to roll back the major Colombian drug traffickers. Pablo Escobar had been driven into hiding and the Medellín and Cali cartels were fragmented, on the defensive. The major cocaine-trafficking routes through the Caribbean had dried up, thanks to better patrolling by the U.S. authorities. In a tectonic shift, the Colombians were relegated to the role of suppliers while the Mexican cartels, including El Chapo's, seized control of transport routes and distribution. Guzman pioneered new ways of smuggling cocaine into the United States, sometimes using tunnels, sometimes secreting it in dolls, fire extinguishers and cans of jalapeños and trucking them across the border.
El Chapo's rising profile had a cost. Rivals trying to assassinate him in May 1993 killed the archbishop of Guadalajara instead; a few days later El Chapo was arrested near the Mexican border in Guatemala—some say because an embarrassed Mexican government had pressured the drug baron's Guatemalan Army protectors to hand him over. For six years, El Chapo lived in comfortable captivity at Puente Grande prison in Guadalajara, reputed to be the nation's most escape-proof penitentiary. He enjoyed a private room, regular deliveries of whisky, the services of a mistress and, reportedly, weekend furloughs. Then, in January 2001, shortly before he was to be extradited to the United States to face a 50-year sentence for murder and drug trafficking, El Chapo managed to walk through a dozen remote-controlled doors and sneak out of the prison in a burlap sack hidden in the back of a laundry truck. The prison got a new nickname: La Puerta Grande—"The Big Door."
Enrique first encountered El Chapo shortly after the jailbreak, and over the next few years he crossed paths with him several times, always addressing the drug lord as Viejon (Old Man) and Tío (Uncle) but never by his nickname. "Everybody loves and respects him," says Enrique. After heavy rains last year destroyed much of the Golden Triangle's crop, he says, El Chapo distributed 1 million pesos' worth of supplies (about $75,000) to the campesinos. And at Christmas, he bought 100 all-terrain vehicles for the locals, at $7,500 apiece. Los Canelos wrote him a theme song, praising him as a "friend of good friends/enemy of enemies the—Lord of the Mountain."
Several times a week now, Mexico's National Security Council meets in a tightly guarded location in Mexico City, to discuss strategies for bringing in Mexico's most wanted man. One possibility being considered is a massive frontal assault on one of El Chapo's ranches. Army helicopters now conduct regular surveillance flights over the rugged terrain, and infantry troops sweep through the hills periodically on poppy- and marijuana-eradication missions. But officials worry that any attempt to take El Chapo by force will be bloody. "The criminals in many cases are far better organized and better armed than the soldiers and police," says one Mexican intelligence official who is not authorized to speak with the press. El Chapo reportedly surrounds himself with two layers of security, an inner circle of weapons experts and an outer "wall" equipped with ATVs and advanced communications equipment.
The dangers of mounting an operation in the heart of El Chapo's territory became clear in April. The archbishop of Durango, Héctor González Martínez, announced at a press conference that Guzman was living in a ranch just outside the village of Guanaceví, in a near-roadless canyon about 120 miles northeast of Culiacán. "Everybody knows it except the authorities," the archbishop said. Days later, two undercover federal agents were found shot to death on the outskirts of Guanaceví. The eyes of one of the two had been gouged out; the other's hands and feet had been cut off. A message was left with their corpses: "Nobody, neither the government nor priests, will ever defeat El Chapo."
The best chance the government has, sources say, is to catch El Chapo unawares during a visit to a city like Culiacán. Indeed, during the past year, every major narco-fugitive who has been captured has been arrested in a major urban area. Over the past few months, the Mexican government has increased its intelligence-gathering operations in the Sinaloan capital, bypassing state officials and state and local police. "You cannot coordinate with the state government. These guys have been protecting Guzman," says Manuel Clouthier Carrillo, leader of the main opposition party in Sinaloa, the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN). A state official confirms that the state government has been left out of the loop. "They don't tell us what is going on," he says.
As he sits in his redoubt deep in the Sierra Madre, El Chapo cannot feel entirely safe. Despite his lack of schooling, drug experts in Mexico say he's a keen observer of history: he knows that drug barons tend not to retire peacefully. Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the "Lord of the Skies" and leader of the Juárez cartel, who ran a huge fleet of planes that carried cocaine across Mexico, died at 41 in 1997 of a lethal mix of anesthetics following an attempt to alter his facial appearance; some believe he was murdered. Of the seven Arellano-Félix brothers who once controlled the Tijuana cartel, four are in prison and one was shot dead by Mexican police. (A sixth was captured and spent a decade in a Mexican prison before being extradited to the United States, where he was released after a year behind bars.) El Chapo's blood feud with Mochomo, the Zetas and other competitors has left him more isolated than ever, limited his mobility and raised the chances that someone, somewhere, will betray him. "This guy is at war with three enemies—the United States, the Mexican government and the fellow cartels. It's Pablo Escobar all over again," says Reyes.
What might come after El Chapo? In Colombia, the decline of the Cali and Medellín cartels left the business atomized; cocaine production passed into the hands of a handful of mini-cartels, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries. Lacking the big syndicates' international reach, they were forced to cede power to the Mexicans. If El Chapo and the other Mexican kingpins are killed or captured, analysts say control could become fragmented again—with some of the business taken over by small Mexican groups and by cartels in weaker Central American states. "The Mexican government has oil revenues, a tax system, a state apparatus [to fight the cartels]. Guatemala doesn't," says Mauricio Cárdenas of Brookings. Michael Shifter agrees: "The Central Americans are not exactly wishing for success in Mexico, because it pushes the problem to them." Soon they may have their own El Chapo to chase.