The Billionaire Kingpin Who Makes Osama Bin Laden Look Like An Easy Catch


Take a look at the following snapshot of this year's Forbes "Most Powerful People" list. Notice anything off?

That's right. "Drug trafficker" seems a bit out of place nestled between Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) and New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson. In fact, nearly all 72 of the people on this year's list are heads of state, tech giants, CEOs, etc., except for one noble spot: "The world's most powerful drug trafficker."

Some say Loera (or "El Chapo" a.k.a. "Shorty"), who runs Mexico's Sinaloa cartel, has proven more elusive than Osama bin Laden. He is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. But one thing is abundantly clear: The joke is on us. It took us 10 years to kill bin Laden from across the world; Chapo is a hop over the border and has been a free man for the past 13 years. 

Who is El Chapo? 

Forbes writer Dolia Estevez said that after the U.S. killed bin Laden, Chapo became the No. 1 most wanted fugitive. His cartel's annual revenues likely exceed $3 billion, and Chapo himself is worth an estimated $1 billion.

Forbes stated that he is responsible for about a quarter of all illegal drugs that come into the the U.S. from Mexico. John Riley, the DEA’s special agent-in-charge of the Chicago field division said that Chapo is "the number one crime organizer in the world — no question about it." 

Sinaloa has operations in about 64 American cities.

Why Can't the U.S. Get Shorty?

The U.S. cannot go into Mexico to capture or arrest him. It’s up to the Mexican army or law enforcement; the U.S. can only provide intelligence. Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesman, said that in the 65 countries where the DEA has offices, "We are their guests," just as we wouldn’t want people from other countries coming in and arresting us. But, he added, "There are all sorts of things we can do, and have done, to provide intelligence."

The problem with simply providing intelligence is that by the time the information hits Mexico, Chapo finds out and is on the move.

Estevez said, "There is a lot of frustration by U.S. law enforcement … Mexico is very protective of their sovereignty." She wrote a piece a few weeks ago titled, "World's most powerful drug dealer Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán makes a mockery of U.S. law enforcement." There is a reward of $5 million for information leading to Chapo’s arrest. In an interview, Estevez said that the reward was a "joke," adding, "That’s probably what the guy spends in a day." (In Mexico, the reward is only $2 million.)

Chapo is thought to be hiding out somewhere in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range, where he’s from. Payne explained that the locals favor the cartel members because they build schools and hospitals and do good deeds for local communities; in reality, it's "to win hearts and minds … and shut them up." They are "taking care of people" and the loyalty in return is "very powerful." Also, he mocks the U.S., and the people love it. 

Chapo, of course, has a "very large payroll" that includes mayors, governors, and "a lot of law enforcement," Estevez said. In this documentary, released early November, it was estimated that he has about 200 people protecting him.

The infamous drug lord reportedly dropped out of school when he was a child. He started to get into the cartel business around age 15. The documentary calls his life "an unlikely rise from poor Mexican boy to CEO of crime." He's admired and revered as a pop icon, and not only in Mexico. Rapper Gucci Mane has a song dedicated to his narco-idol, in which he sings, "All I wanna be is El Chapo." 

Chapo was captured in Guatemala in 1993 and sentenced to 20 years in prison in Mexico. With bribes and intimidation, he turned the jail into a twisted five-star hotel with prostitutes, cocaine, and sex with female inmates. Payne said, "Even from behind bars, he was running the show."

Chapo escaped the high security prison in 2001 out of a laundry cart.

Since then, according to Estevez, he’s become "more free and more powerful." It’s simple, she said. "He is very rich. He is able to buy his freedom — literally."

Chapo began running the Sinaloa cartel in 2003.

How Does it Affect Us?

In 2006, Chapo declared Chicago as his main distribution center. There is no evidence that he’s actually ever stepped foot in the Windy City, but his selection makes sense. Chicago has the fourth or fifth largest Mexican population outside of Mexico, with about 800,000 Mexicans there. Two major Chi-town gangs — the Latin Kings and the larger, more violent gang, the Gangster Disciples — do his dirty work. Today, about 100,000 of Chapo's surrogate gangsters flood the streets of Chicago with 80% of the city’s supply of "the big four:" cocaine, meth, marijuana, and heroin.

This past February, the Chicago Crime Commission branded Chapo the first "Public Enemy No. 1" since Al Capone. Riley said that the Commission gave him the title after a briefing on Chapo’s "enormity" in the city. The title has brought to light the importance of cartels in Chicago and given Chicago police "an idea of what we’re up against," said Riley, who believes that Chapo "makes John Gotti and Al Capone look like boy scouts." 

Chapo has been indicted in Chicago and if he’s captured and extradited to the U.S., he’d be tried in Chicago. "We’re very proud of that," Riley said.

But catching him will not be easy. His network consists of levels of intricate and complex layering. Payne said Chapo alone probably has "one million cell phones." The guys they catch on the ground are many, many levels removed from him. "They're associates of associates of associates." 

The U.S. is the biggest illegal drug market in the world. So, would legalizing drugs at home exhaust the demand that drives the supply from Mexico?

Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron studies black markets. He is very much in favor of legalization as opposed to crackdown. "The more you try to enforce it, the worse you make it," he said. "It doesn’t get resolved in courts with lawyers and courts. It gets resolved with guns."

Payne is against that approach. If we legalize, he said, "They undercut! It won’t weaken them. It will embolden them."

The Real Threat 

Payne and Miron agree on one thing, though: The real threat is not the drugs. It’s the underground tunnels.

Chapo controls over 100 tunnels from Mexico into the U.S., and those are only the ones we’ve found. In the documentary, someone from Arizona border patrol said it was amazing that the land he was standing on wasn’t caving in.

"What scares me the most is the danger they could pose," Payne said of the tunnels. For example, Hezbollah now does business with South American countries and could theoretically use the access that the tunnels provide into the U.S.

"If they’re moving thousands of kilos of cocaine, what else are they moving?"