Traces of Reality
February 25, 2014
Comparisons Between Chapo Guzmán and Osama Bin Laden Are Valid, But For Horrible Reasons
Post updated on 3/7/2014 (see below)
The End of an Era has been declared, loudly proclaimed in headlines throughout the world. Chicago’s “Most Wanted,” the “No. 1 drug kingpin” finally (re)captured in his own backyard. Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera (alias “El Chapo”), the world’s most notorious druglord, was brought down without a single bullet fired.
The entire ordeal unfolded as if the drama was pulled straight from a Hollywood script. Indeed, this novela could have been aptly titled “Got Shorty.” Yet, few of us with an eye on the U.S.-Mexico narcowar expected “The Mexican Osama bin Laden” to go down so quietly. Chapo had a reputation for being ruthless and saavy, and vowed never to be taken alive (or so the story goes). A remarkably choreographed, months-long joint operation involving multiple agencies of the United States and Mexico could be credited for capturing the feared and revered Sinaloa Cartel capo alive.
Once the dust settles, however, is the elimination of symbolic figureheads of Mexico’s narcoinsurgency the solution to “Saving Mexico?” Once the curtains are drawn closed on this narco-terror theater, what substantive progress can be claimed in the Mexican Drug War? Has Peña Nieto vanquished “Mexico’s bin Laden?”
The Dominoes Begin To Fall
The path to Chapo was laid one stone at a time, beginning in earnest in January of 2013. That month, immediate family, in-laws, extended relatives, and associates of Chapo Guzmán were added to the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) sanctions list prohibiting them from conducting business with American banks and companies. In the months following, Mexican authorities apprehended both Chapo’s father-in-law and brother-in-law, and as a result, a network of targets belonging to the Sinaloa Cartel began to materialize.
In November of 2013, U.S. Marshalls arrested Serafín Zambada Ortiz — the 23-year old son of Chapo’s right-hand lieutenant Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García — at a pedestrian border crossing in Nogales, Arizona as he traveled with his wife.
The next month, rival cartel members of the Beltrán Leyva Organization (BLO) and Los Zetas ambushed and gunned down Jesús Gregorio Villanueva Rodríguez (alias “El R5″) — a Sinaloa Cartel leader of its “Gente Nueva” paramilitary wing and plaza boss controlling territory in the Mexican state of Sonora. Members of the rival groups were said to have been tipped off about a forthcoming ambush by “Gente Nueva” and retaliated.
The following week, the Mexican military killed another chief of a team of sicarios (hitmen) operating under the order of Mayo Zambada. Gonzalo Inzunza Inzunza (alias “El Macho Prieto”) was cut down by gunfire from an attack helicopter during pursuit of a narco-convoy led by Inzunza.
At the end of December, Interpol arrested yet another lieutenant of the Sinaloa Cartel — the flamboyant, social media narco-celebrity leader of the sicarios known as “Los Ántrax.” José Rodrigo Aréchiga Gamboa (alias “El Chino Ántrax”) was taken into custody while transiting through the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.
The big break came earlier this month. In separate operations, Mexican Federal Police arrested a dozen operatives of the Sinaloa Cartel, including a plaza boss for Aguascalientes (near Mexico City) named Daniel Fernández Domínguez (alias “El Pelacas”), another sicario leader named Joel Enrique Romero Sandoval (alias “El 19″), Mayo’s security chief and Culiacán plaza boss Jesus Peña Gonzalez (alias “El 20″), Apolonio Romero Sandoval (alias “El 30″), Cristo Omar Romero Sandoval (alias “El Cristo”), Omar Guillermo Cuen Lugo (alias “El Compa Omar”), Mario Miguel Pérez Urrea (alias “El Pitaya”), Jesús Andrés Corrales Aztorga (alias “El Bimbo”), and others.
Mexican authorities used information obtained from the dozens of cell phones seized from the Sinaloa Cartel members to discover the number to Chapo Guzmán’s satellite phone which he switched on only while communicating with his inner circle. Mexican intelligence learned that Chapo and Mayo were making plans to attend a family gathering in the Sinaloan capital of Culiacán, so they suspected it was only a matter of time before Chapo reached out to his confidants.
Amid this multi-agency operation, even a U.S. drone was deployed to gather Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) with the full authorization of Mexico’s military. It flew missions during the end of January and beginning of February, but no information has surfaced to indicate that this drone was sent to kill.
Last week, Mexican forces conducted raids of every Chapo-owned property they knew of, and nearly caught Guzmán at the home of his ex-wife. Its steel-reinforced doors provided Chapo the extra couple of minutes he needed to evade authorities by using a trapdoored bathtub that opened into a tunnel system dug beneath the house which connected to other Chapo hideouts in the area.
With several Mexican and American agencies in hot pursuit, Chapo can be said to have had a “lapse of operational security” and made a call with the satellite phone that had previously been wiretapped — thus, providing triangulated geolocation information to the Mexican authorities.
Chapo’s Abbottobad Moment
An extensive Mexico-U.S. joint operation involving Mexico’s SEDENA (Defense Department), SEMAR (Marines), and CISEN (Intelligence) paired with a supporting cast of U.S. DEA, ICE, DHS, and U.S. Marshals was underway and making significant gains. Although the involvement of other agencies has not yet been confirmed, it would not come as a surprise to discover that the NSA and/or CIA may have had a hand in the operation as well. If the DEA’s Special Operations Division pushed beyond the boundaries of lawful surveillance and engaged in some type of “parallel construction” during the hunt for Chapo, then perhaps this entire narrative is moot.
Just before dawn, at around 6:40 in the morning on Saturday, February 22, 2014, Mexican Marina (Marines) swarmed the Miramar Inn, a modest hotel overlooking the Pacific Ocean in a touristy resort district of Mazatlán, Sinaloa. The Mexican Marina, backed up by two helicopters, rammed open the door to room 401, catching Chapo Guzmán shirtless, red-eyed, and off-guard. Reports following the breaking news claimed that Chapo had reached for an AK-47 kept by the bedside, but had rifles of the Marina in his face before he could get his finger on the trigger. He was apprehended — 13 years after his now-legendary escape from the Puente Grande maximum security prison in Jalisco state (his second prison break in fact) — without a single shot fired. Certainly not the hail-of-bullets glory The Chapo Mythology would have us expect.
Guzmán was arrested along with a bodyguard named Carlos Manuel Hoo Ramirez, his wife Emma Coronel Aispuro, and another female companion. According to the official statement from the Mexican government, the operation lasted less than 8 minutes. By the time people nearby realized what was happening, Chapo was already being whisked to Mexico City. Before he had even landed at Altiplano Prison, the facade of Miramar Inn had become a tourist attraction itself.
Narco-Terror Theater and Public Relations
In Mexico, politicians are often distrusted even more than narcos. Government and police corruption is so common, it’s almost expected. Many observers of the Mexican Drug War have long suspected that Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel had made some sort of secret pact with officials in critical positions within Mexico’s government, Federal Police, and local police. Former El Paso DEA Intelligence Division chief Phil Jordan recently claimed during an interview on Univisión that Chapo himself donated significant sums to the presidential campaign of Enrique Peña Nieto. Jordan wondered aloud about the impetus for Chapo’s capture and whether the kingpin negotiated the terms of his arrest. Investigative journalist Anabel Hernández, who has made the chronicling of Mexico’s narcotraffickers the focus of her work, has also expressed many questions about the capture of Chapo against the backdrop of documents released recently supporting theories of an alleged DEA-Sinaloa Cartel agreement.
Despite being in the crosshairs of authorities on both sides of the border, pop-folklore and narco-corridos sing praises to Chapo Guzmán as a Robin Hood of Sinaloa — the man who kept the peace and provided protection to the community from those other cartels. With good reason, some Mexican citizens remain skeptical of the actual impact Chapo’s capture will bring. Many fear that the splintering factions of various cartels can ignite more violence as turf wars erupt. Even a U.S. Marshal remarked that Chapo’s arrest hardly spells the end for the cartel he commanded. Chapo’s replacements were lined up well in advance to provide continuity to the cartel’s operations. Additionally, there are also rivals who will vie for influence to fill the power vacuum and seek strategic and tactical advantage amid the ensuing chaos.
Yesterday, in fact, a narcomanta (publicly displayed banner with messages from cartel groups) was reported just outside of Mexico City. Signed by a rival from the Gulf Cartel, the message warns that the CDG is coming to “clean the plaza.” Sporadic, if limited, cartel turf wars and infighting are the typical results from the takedown of a kingpin.
Furthermore, Mexico has been down this road before many times. Chapo Guzmán is merely the latest cartel capo in a long series that have been captured or killed. In July of last year, Mexican marines arrested Zetas leader Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales (alias “Z-40″) less than a year after taking command, following the death of top capo Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (alias “El Lazca”). A month before Lazca’s demise, Mexican Marines also caught Gulf Cartel leader Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sánchez (alias “El Coss”). Mexico’s military and police forces have been arresting and killing narcos for generations, yet the trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, torture, murder, and violations continue with appalling frequency.
Osama and “El Chapo”
Many comparisons have been drawn between Chapo Guzmán and Osama Bin Laden in the press issued in the days following Chapo’s arrest. They were both criminals who ruled by terror, seemingly eluding the world’s most sophisticated intelligence agencies and robust surveillance programs for years. They were responsible for countless deaths, limitless suffering, but still managed to gather followers and footsoldiers to expand their operational capabilities. They made it to the top of various “most wanted” lists, commanded large bounties, reaped enormous wealth through their criminal empires, and lived lives wrapped in mystery and mythology. Their exploits are beclouded by conspiracy, and rumors surround the special relationship that each man is said to have maintained with corrupted government officials and insiders. Additionally — and quite coincidentally — they both were tracked by intelligence agencies via their use of satellite phones that were being wiretapped. These comparisons, while mostly rather superficial, are also missing the point.
After all, if any narco invited comparisons to Osama bin Laden, it would have to be Nazario Moreno González (alias “El Más Loco” or “The Craziest One”). Moreno González led the notorious cartel La Familia Michoacana (LFM) after the capture of the group’s founder Carlos Rosales Mendoza. Under his command, LFM members embraced a twisted form of evangelical Christianity and claimed to operate under a pious ethical code while also trafficking crystal meth and decapitating and dismembering rivals.
Tales of Moreno González’s philanthropy in the state of Michoacán persist, and some still believe he may have survived an intense shootout with Mexican Federal Police in 2010 and is secretly leading LFM’s offshoot cartel Los Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar). In present day Michoacán, the Templarios have been dealt major blows by armed vigilante groups known as autodefensas (self-defense squads) that have emerged in southwest Mexico in response to the cartel’s violent, extortionist exploitation. The legacy of “El Más Loco” more closely resembles Bin Laden’s violent, ruthless zealotry than does the business acumen exhibited by Chapo Guzmán.
Chapo and Bin Laden led violent campaigns that did not and do not depend on top-down command-and-control. Taking either one of them out of the picture only creates fissures within the existing organized crime group, but the operational capability persists even after a figurehead like Chapo or Bin Laden is captured or killed. Indeed, they may inspire their operatives, but their roles are largely symbolic. That symbolic quality is more valuable politically than is any substantive drug law overhaul or immigration reform — two critical issues at the heart of the narcowar.
Take note, for instance, the manner in which Chapo Guzmán was led out before the cameras after his arrest: a Mexican Marine seen applying a Vulcan nerve grip on the back of his neck, head down and cuffed (see video here). Then contrast that with the way captured Zetas leader Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales (alias “Z-40″) performed his perp walk: unrestrained, strutting at a cool pace alongside Mexican Marines (see video here).
When Z-40 was arrested, Mexican officials stated that the decision to refrain from hand-cuffing him was to show a more humane treatment of captured criminals. If that is true, then certainly the only reason Chapo was placed on display in that manner was to serve as an example of the potency of Peña Nieto’s administration. In the words of Michael Vigil, a former Senior Executive with the DEA, Chapo is “a human trophy… the crown jewel of the new presidential administration,” offered up to insist that Mexico is not yet a failed state.
After last month’s much-ridiculed Time magazine cover story about Peña Nieto, the timing of Chapo’s takedown was not only convenient, it was desperately needed. The only people convinced of the success of Peña Nieto’s administration either don’t live in Mexico or don’t read news about Mexico. The vigilante uprising in Michoacán, for example, presents an enormous challenge to the Mexican government. U.S.-Mexico intelligence sharing, training, special forces deployments, and drone surveillance has increased in recent years to address Mexico’s security crisis (the captures of Zetas leader Z-40 and the Sinaloa Cartel’s Chapo demonstrate the extent of that increase). No doubt President Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto had much more to discuss than economic cooperation and monarch butterflies during last week’s “Three Amigos Summit” in Mexico.
There’s the rub. While people around the world rejoice at the takedown of Chapo Guzmán, some wonder whether this spectacle was the result of political calculation primarily. Now, of course, the United States and Mexico will fight a legal battle for custody of Public Enemy No. 1, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera. Mexican authorities argue that Chapo has yet to serve the remainder of his sentence, and are holding him in a cell at Altiplano maximum security prison outside of Mexico City (his former prison, before being transferred to Puente Grande and escaping). U.S. officials will expend all available resources to extradite Chapo to face the American justice system, whether in Chicago, Texas, New York, or another location where he’s been indicted.
Mexico has historically kept cartel capos imprisoned in-country, but the release of Guadalajara Cartel godfather Rafael Caro Quintero from a Jalisco state prison — due to a technicality — in August of last year has raised ire, doubts and mistrust between the governments of the U.S. and Mexico. Chapo Guzmán is regarded as a major prize, and it appears Peña Nieto wants to keep this trophy for himself. The capture of Chapo is excellent PR and a triumph for Mexico’s government, but without reexamination of the root causes that allow cartels to flourish, it is an omen for its citizens caught in the crossfire of the narcowar.
Update (3/7/2014): Reports emerging days after the first stories about El Chapo’s capture imparted additional details of the operation and the events surrounding it. Although officially unconfirmed, sources within U.S. government agencies involved in the hunt for Chapo had pressured their Mexican counterparts to put the heat to the Sinaloa cartel capo as a consequence of the contentious release of Guadalajara Cartel founder Rafael Caro Quintero.
While the U.S. government asserts that the role of its agencies involved intense cooperation with Mexican agencies, the administration of Enrique Peña Nieto claims the U.S. engagement was very limited in scope. There are also suspicions that Chapo’s arrest came about due to growing animosity between high-ranking Sinaloa Cartel leadership and Mexico’s PRI government, possibly including unsatisfactory bribes or broken deals.
What is known, however, is that Chapo Guzmán had stopped using cell phones altogether around February 12, following the string of arrests described above. By February 16, a task force assembled of DEA, U.S. Marshals, and HSI (Homeland Security Investigations, a division of the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) had wiretapped the mobile phone of Chapo’s bodyguard Carlos Manuel Hoo-Ramirez (alias “Condor”). The next day, Chapo’s go-to personal assistant Mario Hidalgo Arguello (alias “Nariz”) was apprehended and “flipped immediately” becoming an informant for authorities. That day, Mexican forces narrowly missed Chapo Guzmán at one of his seven safe houses found in Culiacán.
Speculation persists (and will persist) that Mayo Zambada also acted as informant to Mexican authorities, that the arrest was an arranged surrender and that Chapo had ended up at the Miramar resort to say goodbye to his wife Emma Coronel Aispuro and their twin daughters (who were later confirmed as being present at Miramar).
During the transport from Mexico City to the Centro Federal de Readaptación, the Altiplano “Supermax” prison, Chapo Guzmán reportedly nonchalantly recounted his involvement in the deaths of between 1,000 to 2,000 people. Chapo’s ultimate destination — be it the Altiplano prison, or a maximum security prison this side of the border — remains to be seen.