WASHINGTON — Back in 1995, a federal grand jury in San Diego charged a little-known Mexican drug trafficker named Joaquín Guzmán Loera and 22 underlings with creating a cocaine ring that stretched from Southern California to New Jersey.
Over the next two decades, as Mr. Guzmán’s infamy grew, he became known simply by his nickname El Chapo, or “Shorty.”
The American authorities would charge him seven more times in courtrooms in Brooklyn, Chicago, Miami and other cities where his sprawling drug network had wreaked havoc.
Prosecutors argued that his network moved hundreds of thousands of pounds of cocaine — worth billions of dollars — onto American streets. But despite multiple requests by the United States for Mexico to extradite him, the elusive fugitive still has never set foot in an American courtroom.
With his capture in Mexico, however, that may change. The Mexican authorities signaled more strongly than ever this weekend that they might be willing to send him to the United States to face drug charges after his prison escape last summer. That escape humiliated the Mexican authorities and raised questions about whether his incarceration there could be guaranteed.
He said that if Guzmán were sent stateside to face criminal charges, it would be a coup for American prosecutors and a huge setback for the Mexican drug trade. “It’s a very big deal,” Mr. Braun said.
For Mexico to agree to extradite Mr. Guzmán, the United States would most likely have to agree not to prosecute him on capital charges that could subject him to the death penalty. Mexico does not have a death penalty and, as a matter of policy, does not extradite defendants who could face it in another country.
Their joint indictment charged Mr. Guzmán and another suspected leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Ismael Zambada García, with distributing more than 500 tons of cocaine in the United States since the late 1980s. It also charged them with distribution of heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana.
Prosecutors believe the cartel may have been the biggest supplier of cocaine to the New York City area for a decade or longer.
In their most recent indictment of Mr. Guzmán and Mr. García, prosecutors listed 163 separate counts of distribution of cocaine in the United States, ranging from 234 kilograms to as much as 23,000 kilos.
The indictment also said that leaders of the Sinaloa Cartel conspired to kill or arrange the killings of several people, including Mexican police and military officers and elected officials. They also conspired to have members of competing drug trafficking organizations killed, the indictment said.
Hollywood actor Sean Penn interviewed Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman at a secret location soon after his jail break, trying to get him captured.
Guzman escaped from the maximum security Altiplano jail in July and was recaptured on Friday.
Unnamed Mexican officials say Penn’s secret meeting helped lead them to the fugitive, who is back in Altiplano.
Their comments chime with public pronouncements by Attorney General Arely Gomez, who said on Friday that an important aspect of his recapture “was discovering Guzman’s intention to have a biographic film made.”
“He contacted actresses and producers, which was part of one line of investigation.”
This would be the second prison escape of the world’s most notorious drug lord, the first being 13 years earlier, from Puente Grande prison, where he was smuggled out under the sheets of a laundry cart.
Since he joined the drug trade as a teenager, Chapo swiftly rose through the ranks, building an almost mythic reputation: First, as a cold pragmatist known to deliver a single shot to the head for any mistakes made in a shipment, and later, as he began to establish the Sinaloa cartel, as a Robin Hood-like figure who provided much-needed services in the Sinaloa mountains, funding everything from food and roads to medical relief. By the time of his second escape from federal prison, he had become a figure entrenched in Mexican folklore.
In 1989, El Chapo dug the first subterranean passage beneath the border from Tijuana to San Diego, and pioneered the use of tunnels to transport his products and to evade capture. His already accomplished engineers were flown to Germany last year for three months of extensive additional training necessary to deal with the low-lying water table beneath the prison. It’s a tunnel equipped with a pipe-track-guided motorcycle with an engine modified to function in the minimally oxygenized space, allowing El Chapo to drop through a hole in his cell’s shower floor, into its saddle and ride to freedom. It was this president of Mexico who had agreed to see us.
I (Sean Penn) took some comfort in a unique aspect of El Chapo’s reputation among the heads of drug cartels in Mexico. There is little dispute that the War on Drugs has failed. As many as 27,000 drug-related homicides take place in Mexico alone in a single year, and opiate addiction is on the rise in the U.S.
In January 2012, the Mexican film and television star Kate del Castillo, who famously played a drug lordess in Mexico’s popular soap opera La Reina del Sur, used Twitter to express her mistrust of the Mexican government. She stated that in a question of trust between governments and cartels, hers would go to El Chapo. And in that tweet, she expressed a dream, perhaps an encouragement to El Chapo himself: “Mr. Chapo, wouldn’t it be cool that you started trafficking with love? With cures for diseases, with food for the homeless children, with alcohol for the retirement homes that don’t let the elderly spend the rest of the days doing whatever they want. Imagine trafficking with corrupt politicians instead of women and children who end up as slaves. Why don’t you burn all those whorehouses where women are worth less than a pack of cigarettes. Without offer, there’s no demand. Come on, Don! You would be the hero of heroes. Let’s traffic with love. You know how to. Life is a business and the only thing that changes is the merchandise. Don’t you agree?”
Two years later, in February 2014, a detachment of Mexican marines captured El Chapo in a Mazatlán hotel following a 13-year manhunt. The images of that arrest were flashed across the world’s televisions.
While he was incarcerated at Altiplano prison, El Chapo’s attorneys were flooded with overtures from Hollywood studios. With his dramatic capture, and perhaps, the illusion of safe dealings now that El Chapo was locked up, the gringos were scrambling to tell his story.
The seed was planted, and El Chapo, awakened to the prospect, made plans of his own. He was interested in seeing the story of his life told on film but would entrust its telling only to Kate. The same lawyer again tracked her down, this time through the Mexican equivalent of the Screen Actors Guild, and the imprisoned drug lord and the actress began to correspond in handwritten letters and BBM messages.
Then came July 2015. El Chapo’s prison break. The world, and particularly Mexico and the United States, was up in arms. How could this happen?! The DEA and the Justice Department were furious. The fact that Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong had refused El Chapo’s extradition to the United States, then allowed his escape, positioned Chong and the Peña Nieto administration as global pariahs.
Word came back a week or so later that Chapo had indeed agreed to meet with us. Four days later, on October 2nd, El Alto, Espinoza, Kate and I board a self-financed charter flight from a Los Angeles-area airport to a city in mid-Mexico. Upon landing, a hotel driver takes us by minivan to the hotel we had been instructed to book. Suspicious of every living or inanimate thing.
Through the windshield as we approach the hotel, I see a casually dressed man in his forties appear on the sidewalk, simultaneously directing our driver to the entryway while dialing a number on his cellphone. This is Alonzo, who, I’m about to learn, is an associate of El Chapo. We grab our bags and exit the minivan. Almost immediately, the traffic around the designated pickup point diminishes. Out of my view, someone is blocking the neighboring streets. Then, a lone convoy of “up-armor” SUVs appears in front of our hotel. Alonzo asks us to surrender our electronics and leave them behind – cellphones, computers, etc.
We arrive at a dirt airfield. Security men in tailored suits stand beside two six-seat single-engine prop planes. It isn’t until boarding one of the two planes that I realize that our driver had been the 29-year-old son of El Chapo, Alfredo Guzmán. He boards beside me, designated among our personal escorts to see his father. He’s handsome, lean and smartly dressed, with a wristwatch that might be of more value than the money housed by the central banks of most nation-states. He’s got one hell of a wristwatch.
There is no doubt this is the real deal. He’s wearing a casual patterned silk shirt, pressed black jeans, and he appears remarkably well-groomed and healthy for a man on the run. He opens Kate’s door and greets her like a daughter returning from college. It seems important to him to express the warm affection in person that, until now, he’d only had occasion to communicate from afar. After greeting her, he turns to me with a hospitable smile, putting out his outstretched hand. I take it. He pulls me into a “compadre” hug, looks me in the eyes and speaks a lengthy greeting in Spanish too fast for my ears. I gather up the presence of mind to explain to him in broken Spanish that I would depend on Kate to translate as the night went on. Only then does he realize his greeting had not been understood. He jokes to his crew, laughing at his own assumption that I speak Spanish and at my momentary disorientation that I’ve let him go on at such length in his greeting.
To my right, Rodrigo. Rodrigo is godfather to Chapo’s twin four-year-old girls by his 26-year-old beauty-queen wife, Emma Coronel. Rodrigo is the one who has me concerned. The look in his eye is far away but locked dead on me. My speculation goes audio. I hear chain saws. I feel splatter. I am Sean’s dubitable paranoia. My eyes are compelled to drift to Rodrigo’s right. There is Ivan, Chapo’s eldest son. At 32, he is considered the heir to the cartel. He’s attentive with a calm maturity. Like his brother, he boasts a fabulous wristwatch.
Throughout my introduction, Chapo smiles a warm smile. In fact, in what would be a seven-hour sit-down, I saw him without that smile only in brief flashes. As has been said of many notorious men, he has an indisputable charisma. When I ask about his dynamic with the Mexican government, he pauses. “Talking about politicians, I keep my opinion to myself. They go do their thing and I do mine.”
Beneath his smile, there is a doubtlessness to his facial expression. A question comes to mind as I observe his face. Both as he speaks as while he listens. What is it that removes all doubt from a man’s eyes? Is it power? Admirable clarity? Or soullessness? Soullessness…
There is the pervasive feeling that if there were a threat, they would know it. We eat, drink, and talk for hours. He is interested in the movie business and how it works. He’s unimpressed with its financial yield.
“I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.”
He is entirely unapologetic. Against the challenges of doing business in such a clandestine industry he has ––built an empire. I am reminded of press accounts alleging a $100 million bounty the man across from me is said to have put on Donald Trump’s life. I mention Trump. El Chapo smiles, ironically saying, “Ah! Mi amigo!” Tony Montana in Oliver Stone’s Scarface. It’s the dinner scene where Elvira, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, and walked out the restaurant every body stare at him, but rather than hide in humiliation, he stands and lectures them. “You’re all a bunch of assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be need people like me. . So you can point your fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ So what’s that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide...how to lie. Me? I don’t have that problem. Me?! I always tell the truth even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy. C’mon. Last time you’re gonna see a bad guy like this again, lemme tell ya!”
See your mother much? “All the time. I hoped we would meet at my ranch and you could meet my mother. She knows me better than I do. But something came up and we had to change the plan.”
El Chapo was arrested on January 8 after a gunfight with the military in Sinaloa.
When those hoops had finally been jumped through, mostly by Kate but at my relentless direction, the only retaliation I was left fearing during my engagement with El Chapo Guzmán and the Sinaloa cartel was the potential wrath of a Mexican actress toward an American actor who had single-mindedly abused his friendship with her to retrieve the needed video. And then an encrypted message came from Kate: “Got it!” I nearly hit the ceiling with excitement as Kate’s follow-up dinged on my phone, “…you pushy motherfucker.” I’d earned that. Evidently, a courier for El Chapo had delivered her the video. Kate and I met up, I made my apologies, and she transferred the video from her device to mine. At home, I turned down the lights, sat with an English transcription provided by Kate, which began with her note: “The video runs for 17 minutes. Press play.”
He sits in a turquoise-and-navy paisley long-sleeve button-down shirt and clean black slacks on a randomly placed stool. The signature mustache that he wore in our last meeting, now gone. His trademark black trucker’s hat, absent. His hair combed, or perhaps cap-matted, conjuring the vision of a wide-eyed schoolboy unsure of his teacher’s summons. His hands folded across each other, a self-soothing thumb crossing the knuckle of the other. Beside him, a short white brick wall topped by a chain-link fence. Behind that, a white 4×4 pickup truck. The location appears as a large, ranch-like property with low-lying mountains far in the distance and the intermittent cockadoodledoo of farm roosters serving as the Greek chorus to the interview. Throughout the video, we see farm workers and paramilitaries crossing behind him. A German shepherd sniffs the dirt and wanders out of frame.
He begins: “I want to make clear that this interview is for the exclusive use of Miss Kate del Castillo and Mister Sean Penn.” The image goes black.
How was your childhood?
I remember from the time I was six until now, my parents, a very humble family, very poor, I remember how my mom made bread to support the family. I would sell it, I sold oranges, I sold soft drinks, I sold candy. My mom, she was a hard worker, she worked a lot. We grew corn, beans. I took care of my grandmother’s cattle and chopped wood.
And how did you get involved in the drug business?
Well, from the time I was 15 and after, where I come from, which is the municipality of Badiraguato, I was raised in a ranch named La Tuna, in that area, and up until today, there are no job opportunities. The only way to have money to buy food, to survive, is to grow poppy, marijuana, and at that age, I began to grow it, to cultivate it and to sell it. That is what I can tell you.
How did it all expand?
From there, from my ranch, I started to leave at 18 and went to Culiacan, then after to Guadalajara, but never without visiting my ranch, even up until today, because my mom, thanks to God, is still alive, out there in our ranch, which is La Tuna, and so, that is how things have been.
How has your family life changed from then to now?
Very good – my children, my brothers, my nephews. We all get along well, very normal. Very good.
And now that you are free, how has it affected you?
Well, as for being free – happy, because freedom is really nice, and pressure, well, for me it’s normal, because I’ve had to be careful for a few years now in certain cities, and, no, I don’t feel anything that hurts my health or my mind. I feel good.
Is it true what they say that drugs destroy humanity and bring harm?
Well, it’s a reality that drugs destroy. Unfortunately, as I said, where I grew up there was no other way and there still isn’t a way to survive, no way to work in our economy to be able to make a living.
Do you think it is true you are responsible for the high level of drug addiction in the world?
No, that is false, because the day I don’t exist, it’s not going to decrease in any way at all. Drug trafficking? That’s false.
Did your drug business grow and expand when you were in jail?
From what I can tell, and what I know, everything is the same. Nothing has decreased. Nothing has increased.
What about the violence attached to this type of activity?
In part, it is because already some people already grow up with problems, and there is some envy and they have information against someone else. That is what creates violence.
Do you consider yourself a violent person?
Are you prone to violence, or do you use it as a last resort?
Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more. But do I start trouble? Never.
What is your opinion about the situation in Mexico, what is the outlook for Mexico?
Well, drug trafficking is already part of a culture that originated from the ancestors. And not only in Mexico. This is worldwide.
Do you consider your activity, your organization, a cartel?
No, sir, not at all. Because people who dedicate their lives to this activity do not depend on me.
How has this business evolved from the time you started up until today?
Big difference. Today there are lots of drugs, and back then, the only ones we knew were marijuana and poppy.
What is the difference in people now compared to back then?
Big difference, because now, day after day, villages are getting bigger, and there’s more of us, and lots of different ways of thinking.
What is the outlook for the business? Do you think it will disappear? Will it grow instead?
No, it will not end because as time goes by, we are more people, and this will never end.
Do you think terrorism activities in the Middle East will, in any way, impact the future of drug trafficking?
No, sir. It doesn’t make a difference at all.
You saw how the final days of Escobar were. How do you see your final days with respect to this business?
I know one day I will die. I hope it’s of natural causes.
The U.S. government thinks that the Mexican government does not want to arrest you. What they want to do is to kill you. What do you think?
No, I think that if they find me, they’ll arrest me, of course.
With respect to your activities, what do you think the impact on Mexico is? Do you think there is a substantial impact?
Not at all. Not at all.
Because drug trafficking does not depend on just one person. It depends on a lot of people.
What is your opinion about who is to blame here, those who sell drugs, or the people who use drugs and create a demand for them? What is the relationship between production, sale and consumption?
If there was no consumption, there would be no sales. It is true that consumption, day after day, becomes bigger and bigger. So it sells and sells.
But you must have some dreams, some hopes for your life?
I want to live with my family the days God gives me.
How is your relationship with your mom?
My relationship? Perfect. Very well.
Is it one of respect?
Yes, sir, respect, affection and love.
How do you see the future for your sons and daughters?
Very well. They get along right. The family is tight.
Did you ever use drugs?
No, sir. Many years ago, yes, I did try them. But an addict? No.
How long ago?
I haven’t done any drugs in the last 20 years.
Did it not worry you that you might be putting your family at risk with your escape?
The two times you escaped, it is worth mentioning, there was no violence.
With me, it did not come to that. In other situations, what’s been seen, things occur differently, but here, we did not use any violence.
Bearing in mind what has been written about you, what one can see on TV, things are said about you in Mexico, what kind of message would you like to convey to the people of Mexico?
Well, I can say it’s normal that people have mixed feelings because some people know me and others don’t. That is the reason I say it is normal. Because those who do not know me can have their doubts about saying if, in this case, I’m a good person or not.
Since our late-night visit in the Mexican mountains, raids on ranches there have been relentless. A war zone. Navy helicopters waging air assaults and inserting troops. Helos shot down by Sinaloa cartel gunmen. Marines killed. Cartel fighters killed. Campasinos killed or displaced. Rumors spread that El Chapo escaped to Guatemala, or even further, into South America. But no. He was right there where he was born and raised. On Friday, January 8th, 2016, it happened. El Chapo was captured and arrested – alive.