Update February 22, 2014: Associated Press reports El Chapo has been detained by Mexican and U.S. authorities. Fusion aired a documentary titled “El Chapo Guzmán, CEO of Crime” in November 2013 before his arrest.
El Chapo was born in the small Sinaloa town of La Tuna and is the oldest of seven children. Guzmán grew up surrounded by marijuana and poppy crops — plants that were cultivated by his father, Emilio Guzmán Bustillo.
The elder Guzmán was a violent man who beat his children. El Chapo likely earned the ire of his father by trying to stop him from hitting his siblings.
Whereas his father was a source of punishment, his mother — Consuelo Loera — served as his fountain of emotional support. She still lives in La Tuna and is said to be the only person in the world who can change her son’s mind on anything.
Guzmán entered the narcotics industry at the age of 15 when, along with his cousins, he planted his own marijuana. It was during his adolescence that he was given the nickname of “El Chapo,” a reference to his miniscule stature (it roughly translates to “shorty”).
His rise to prominence began in 1981, when he traveled to Barranquilla, Colombia, to meet with Fabian Ochoa, one of the leaders of the Medellin Cartel. This visit resulted in El Chapo establishing himself as a crucial point of the drug transfer chain. In essence, he became responsible for moving Colombian cocaine north to the United States.
As his business grew, he kept a low profile, using a series of front companies and establishing a network of government and law enforcement officials — often on his payroll. His tactic was to maintain a low profile in the world of Mexican drug trafficking while accumulating the power necessary to build how own organization.
When Guzmán was 26 years old, DEA agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena was tortured and murdered by drug traffickers. The Reagan administration responded by launching an unprecedented offensive against Mexican drug cartels. As law enforcement cracked down on some drug smuggling organizations, others vied to take their place, resulting in a power struggle between the cartels. According to Robert Bonner, ex-DEA director, El Chapo took advantage of the power vacuum by killing old partners, establishing new alliances and steadily growing his organization.
He also made important enemies. The problems between El Chapo and a rival cartel, the Arellano Felix family had escalated over the years. The struggle over control of key drug smuggling routes into the US caused deaths on both sides. In 1988, hitman with the Arellano Felix organization killed Guzmán’s best friend, Armando López.
This set the stage for a pivotal event in El Chapo’s career. On May 24, 1993, at Guadalajara International Airport, Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, cardinal of Guadalajara and a powerful figure in Mexico’s Catholic church, was shot to death in his car. Mexican authorities originally believed El Chapo was responsible, and launched a manhunt. The murder of Cardinal Posadas made headlines and and made Guzmán Mexico’s most wanted man. His face, which by then was unknown to the public, began to appear daily on television and in nationally distributed newspapers.
Authorities would later develop an alternative theory: hitman with the Arellano Felix organization had shot Ocampo, after mistaking his car for Guzmán’s. The cardinal was never the intended target, but was caught in the crossfire between the cartels. There’s still debate about who is really responsible for the killing.
As the Mexican government stepped up its search, Guzmán fled the country. His plan was to hide out in El Salvador, but authorities caught up with him in Guatemala. The Guatemalan military captured him about 25 kilometers from the capital. His men did not offer any resistance.
“His reaction was a calm reaction, I mean, he didn’t look scared, nervous or violent,” said Otto Pérez Molina, the current president of Guatemala, who at the time was in charge of the troops that captured Guzmán. He was sent back to Mexico.
El Chapo was initially placed in prison with strict rules. He was not allowed to talk to other prisoners or receive food from the outside. It did not last, and he was inexplicably transferred to a more lenient facility, the Puente Grande, Jalisco penitentiary in November 1995. From his cell at Puente Grande, Guzmán used bribes and intimidation to transform the prison into what one source call “a five-star hotel,” one that he would soon check out of.
On January 19, 2001, El Chapo escaped from the prison. There are various accounts of how he pulled it off. The most sensational one is that he escaped on a laundry cart while hiding underneath sheets and covering himself with a mattress. With time, that version has become a myth. Investigators now maintain that Guzmán left by walking through the front door of the prison, under complicity of numerous officials.
After getting out of prison, Guzmán continued to grow his business. In the last few years, Guzmán has expanded his reach. After the United States, Europe is now his second largest market, with Spain serving as his point of entrance.
Africa and Asia have not escaped his cartel’s tentacles According to recent DEA reports, he bases his operations in Africa out of Guinea Bissau, and in Asia, he has connections with Thai organizations that send him heroin, marijuana and illegal weapons.
Twelve years after he escaped from prison, El Chapo continues to run his operation. He is one of the most wanted men in the world, but there is no known manhunt underway to capture him. It is believed that he continues to manage his worldwide drug empire from Sinaloa, where he first began growing marijuana plants as a teenager.