.
I

n the Summer of 2018, while on a break in New York City, I found myself breakfasting on the Lower East Side. Looking out the windows, I saw an incredible convoy of police cars, black Suburban SUVs, an ambulance, and at least one SWAT vehicle. Being from Washington, DC, such convoys are not out of the ordinary, but seeing one in New York was a bit surprising until I looked up at the television in the bar—it was the convoy escorting Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, commonly known as "El Chapo,” to or from one of his hearings at the U.S. District Court.

El Jefe: The Stalking of Chapo Guzmán | By Alan Feuer | Flatiron Books | August 2020.

The saga of how Guzmán ended up in court is the subject of Alan Feuer’s book El Jefe and it is one of the most enjoyable reads of the summer. It is probably the perfect summer book: a Netflix show on paper. Except, of course, that this is the real story that is dramatized in Narcos and Narcos: Mexico and ironically it is just as, if not more, dramatic than the shows on which these stories are based.  

I must confess that both Narcos and Narcos: Mexico are two of my guilty pleasures. I don’t watch a lot of television but find both shows absolutely addicting. It’s less the shows themselves—though they are fantastically well-acted—but more about the subject matter. The illicit trafficking of narcotics is a fascinating, complex, a violent story that in some way has touched every aspect of modern life.

No element of American society is immune to the effects of the “war on drugs”—from illicit finance penetrating banking and real estate to the changes that both law enforcement and the justice system have undergone; from our international relations with Mexico and Colombia to narco-trafficking’s roles; from the war on communism to the war on terrorism. The cartels spawned an entire illicit economy with unique market dynamics and forces, just as it subverted and intertwined itself with witting and unwitting partners in the legal capitalist economy. The narcotics trade is also, at its core, a tragic human story—countless lives lost directly to drugs or as collateral damage to warring cartels and gangs both in the United States and abroad.

Feuer’s book doesn’t dive into any of those socio-politico issues, and that is perfectly fine. Not every book needs to be a polemic or a tome of policy analysis. It is one of the few books that does exactly what it says on the tin: it is about the stalking, and ultimate takedown, of Chapo Guzmán, and it is riveting.

The cat and mouse game that occurs between American law enforcement and Guzmán is fascinating. For the former, the entire weight of the federal government was brought to bear against the latter, a kingpin who was addicted to his Blackberry and so paranoid about those around him that he installed spyware on their devices. A drug kingpin who wasn’t necessarily technologically savvy, but was smart enough to employ those who were.

Reading this book, one can’t help but marvel at the persistence, tenacity, and dedication of American law enforcement. At a time when it seems like police officers of any stripe can do nothing right—or are condemned as agents of the “Deep State”—Feuer weaves a narrative of DEA and Homeland Security Investigation agents, FBI special agents, and local law enforcement; all of whom were risking their lives daily to arrest one of the most notorious drugs traffickers in the world.

And persistent they were. First arrested in 1993 in Guatemala, Guzmán escaped from a maximum-security prison in 2001, either by bribing his way out or by hiding in a laundry cart, depending on which myth you prefer to believe. He evaded one arrest attempt by hopping a fence and fleeing on foot, later evading another arrest attempt by fleeing through a tunnel concealed under a bathtub. He was arrested again in 2014, but he escaped before his sentencing through a tunnel dug to his prison shower after his compatriots geo-located the bathroom. Finally, in 2016, he was arrested and later extradited to the United States where he is now a resident of the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

It is also fascinating to see how the making of a case can hinge on just one connection, one piece of information, or one witness; how that key element can bring the whole thing together. For Guzmán, it was his Colombian IT consultant: an individual who worked in the gray area of white hat consulting and black hat encrypted network design for cartels. Flipping him gave law enforcement access to El Chapo’s inner workings, which revealed him to be a corporate executive who dealt with all of the attendant dramas of running a multi-national business. Unraveling the network through the Blackberry Messenger PINs provided law enforcement with a full map of his network and, layered against the spyware’s tracking, a near-complete map of where the devices were located. Later, it was a mistress/assistant who cooperated with law enforcement and later testified against him at the trial.

Guzmán was exceptionally clever and tried to insulate himself with a system of “offices” that would relay his communications up and down the chain of command. While he was reluctant to use the devices himself for text communications, he would have his assistant relay his instructions down to one of these offices, which would copy out the instruction and forward it on using another device, often to another level down the pyramid. Even if law enforcement captured one of the offices or the relays, there would still be protection for Guzmán. Ultimately, the combination of multiple law enforcement operations, lucky breaks, and flipped witnesses proved too much for Guzmán.

The reader does wish there was more about Guzmán himself, his background, and how he came to power. While Feuer does cover some of this across several interludes between the sections of the book, it feels a bit breezy and light.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, Feuer attempts to dissect the myth of Guzmán and his rise to power, exploring how some in Mexico and the United States cannot fathom how a single person could become so powerful and sit astride so large a network. He raises a theory, offered by an academic, that is borderline conspiratorial. According to sociologist Jim Creechan, Guzmán became a scapegoat for the Mexican government in 1993 following the assassination of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, who was murdered at Mexico City’s international airport, having allegedly been mistaken for Guzmán.

By making Guzmán the face of narco-trafficking in Mexico, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was able to look tough on organized crime, without actually tackling the narco-economy, which was so central to Mexico’s economic, political, and security elite. Guzmán obviously benefited from the situation, allegedly also getting support from the other cartels, according to this theory.

Ironically, Guzmán’s lawyers offered up a similar argument in his defense, suggesting that it was not him, but his longtime partner Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who was really in charge of the cartel. How was it possible that Guzmán—who was in prison for nearly a decade and on the run for the remainder of his life—was able to run the cartel, they asked.

The reality is that in the mythmaking of El Chapo, people are attempting to rationalize and understand how an uneducated peasant from Sinaloa could rise to the top of a violent, competitive, and global industry. He happened to be at the right place at the right time with the arrest of his mentor, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, the rise of America’s appetite for cocaine in the 80s, cartels’ cooperation with intelligence agencies against Latin American Communism, and the opening of the U.S.-Mexico border thanks to NAFTA. Moreover, Guzmán himself relished the limelight in a way that few of his contemporaries did, going so far as to commission a screenplay of his life and seek out a leading telenovela actress to help get it produced (leading to a strange interlude with the actor, Sean Penn).

Truth really is stranger than fiction, and for as much as I enjoy watching Narcos, I enjoyed reading Feuer’s telling of the takedown of El Chapo. In this crazy environment, El Jefe is about as escapist as one can get with such a tragic and fascinating story.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

The Stalking of Chapo Guzmán

September 5, 2020

El Jefe: The Stalking of Chapo Guzmán | By Alan Feuer | Flatiron Books | August 2020.

I

n the Summer of 2018, while on a break in New York City, I found myself breakfasting on the Lower East Side. Looking out the windows, I saw an incredible convoy of police cars, black Suburban SUVs, an ambulance, and at least one SWAT vehicle. Being from Washington, DC, such convoys are not out of the ordinary, but seeing one in New York was a bit surprising until I looked up at the television in the bar—it was the convoy escorting Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, commonly known as "El Chapo,” to or from one of his hearings at the U.S. District Court.

El Jefe: The Stalking of Chapo Guzmán | By Alan Feuer | Flatiron Books | August 2020.

The saga of how Guzmán ended up in court is the subject of Alan Feuer’s book El Jefe and it is one of the most enjoyable reads of the summer. It is probably the perfect summer book: a Netflix show on paper. Except, of course, that this is the real story that is dramatized in Narcos and Narcos: Mexico and ironically it is just as, if not more, dramatic than the shows on which these stories are based.  

I must confess that both Narcos and Narcos: Mexico are two of my guilty pleasures. I don’t watch a lot of television but find both shows absolutely addicting. It’s less the shows themselves—though they are fantastically well-acted—but more about the subject matter. The illicit trafficking of narcotics is a fascinating, complex, a violent story that in some way has touched every aspect of modern life.

No element of American society is immune to the effects of the “war on drugs”—from illicit finance penetrating banking and real estate to the changes that both law enforcement and the justice system have undergone; from our international relations with Mexico and Colombia to narco-trafficking’s roles; from the war on communism to the war on terrorism. The cartels spawned an entire illicit economy with unique market dynamics and forces, just as it subverted and intertwined itself with witting and unwitting partners in the legal capitalist economy. The narcotics trade is also, at its core, a tragic human story—countless lives lost directly to drugs or as collateral damage to warring cartels and gangs both in the United States and abroad.

Feuer’s book doesn’t dive into any of those socio-politico issues, and that is perfectly fine. Not every book needs to be a polemic or a tome of policy analysis. It is one of the few books that does exactly what it says on the tin: it is about the stalking, and ultimate takedown, of Chapo Guzmán, and it is riveting.

The cat and mouse game that occurs between American law enforcement and Guzmán is fascinating. For the former, the entire weight of the federal government was brought to bear against the latter, a kingpin who was addicted to his Blackberry and so paranoid about those around him that he installed spyware on their devices. A drug kingpin who wasn’t necessarily technologically savvy, but was smart enough to employ those who were.

Reading this book, one can’t help but marvel at the persistence, tenacity, and dedication of American law enforcement. At a time when it seems like police officers of any stripe can do nothing right—or are condemned as agents of the “Deep State”—Feuer weaves a narrative of DEA and Homeland Security Investigation agents, FBI special agents, and local law enforcement; all of whom were risking their lives daily to arrest one of the most notorious drugs traffickers in the world.

And persistent they were. First arrested in 1993 in Guatemala, Guzmán escaped from a maximum-security prison in 2001, either by bribing his way out or by hiding in a laundry cart, depending on which myth you prefer to believe. He evaded one arrest attempt by hopping a fence and fleeing on foot, later evading another arrest attempt by fleeing through a tunnel concealed under a bathtub. He was arrested again in 2014, but he escaped before his sentencing through a tunnel dug to his prison shower after his compatriots geo-located the bathroom. Finally, in 2016, he was arrested and later extradited to the United States where he is now a resident of the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.

It is also fascinating to see how the making of a case can hinge on just one connection, one piece of information, or one witness; how that key element can bring the whole thing together. For Guzmán, it was his Colombian IT consultant: an individual who worked in the gray area of white hat consulting and black hat encrypted network design for cartels. Flipping him gave law enforcement access to El Chapo’s inner workings, which revealed him to be a corporate executive who dealt with all of the attendant dramas of running a multi-national business. Unraveling the network through the Blackberry Messenger PINs provided law enforcement with a full map of his network and, layered against the spyware’s tracking, a near-complete map of where the devices were located. Later, it was a mistress/assistant who cooperated with law enforcement and later testified against him at the trial.

Guzmán was exceptionally clever and tried to insulate himself with a system of “offices” that would relay his communications up and down the chain of command. While he was reluctant to use the devices himself for text communications, he would have his assistant relay his instructions down to one of these offices, which would copy out the instruction and forward it on using another device, often to another level down the pyramid. Even if law enforcement captured one of the offices or the relays, there would still be protection for Guzmán. Ultimately, the combination of multiple law enforcement operations, lucky breaks, and flipped witnesses proved too much for Guzmán.

The reader does wish there was more about Guzmán himself, his background, and how he came to power. While Feuer does cover some of this across several interludes between the sections of the book, it feels a bit breezy and light.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, Feuer attempts to dissect the myth of Guzmán and his rise to power, exploring how some in Mexico and the United States cannot fathom how a single person could become so powerful and sit astride so large a network. He raises a theory, offered by an academic, that is borderline conspiratorial. According to sociologist Jim Creechan, Guzmán became a scapegoat for the Mexican government in 1993 following the assassination of Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, who was murdered at Mexico City’s international airport, having allegedly been mistaken for Guzmán.

By making Guzmán the face of narco-trafficking in Mexico, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was able to look tough on organized crime, without actually tackling the narco-economy, which was so central to Mexico’s economic, political, and security elite. Guzmán obviously benefited from the situation, allegedly also getting support from the other cartels, according to this theory.

Ironically, Guzmán’s lawyers offered up a similar argument in his defense, suggesting that it was not him, but his longtime partner Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who was really in charge of the cartel. How was it possible that Guzmán—who was in prison for nearly a decade and on the run for the remainder of his life—was able to run the cartel, they asked.

The reality is that in the mythmaking of El Chapo, people are attempting to rationalize and understand how an uneducated peasant from Sinaloa could rise to the top of a violent, competitive, and global industry. He happened to be at the right place at the right time with the arrest of his mentor, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, the rise of America’s appetite for cocaine in the 80s, cartels’ cooperation with intelligence agencies against Latin American Communism, and the opening of the U.S.-Mexico border thanks to NAFTA. Moreover, Guzmán himself relished the limelight in a way that few of his contemporaries did, going so far as to commission a screenplay of his life and seek out a leading telenovela actress to help get it produced (leading to a strange interlude with the actor, Sean Penn).

Truth really is stranger than fiction, and for as much as I enjoy watching Narcos, I enjoyed reading Feuer’s telling of the takedown of El Chapo. In this crazy environment, El Jefe is about as escapist as one can get with such a tragic and fascinating story.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.