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United States

The limitless guile of Joaquín ‘El Chapo' Guzmán

Cocaine in canned jalapeño chili peppers, and other creative methods.
31 Ene 2017 – 04:11 PM EST

The two decades-long international law enforcement effort to bring accused Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán to justice is nearing an end after he was recaptured in January 2016 by Mexican authorities following his second dramatic jail break.

As Guzmán sits in a U.S. maximum security prison awaiting trial, Univision Investiga pieced together some of the legal case that will be presented against him.

Over several months Univision obtained access to testimony and documents that could be used in the United States against Guzmán. Among those interviewed are former U.S. and Latin American counternarcotics agents. Univision also examined the testimony of informers who were at one time close associates of Guzmán.

In this four part series we reconstruct the story of how Guzmán flooded the United States with drugs by sea, land and air, often with the complicity of local authorities.

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U.S.A. vs ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán: The legal case against Joaquín Guzmán

Limitless Guile

Since the beginning of his criminal career, Joaquin Guzmán showed signs of being a drug trafficker with a global vision and as his empire grew, a DEA intelligence center located in El Paso, Texas, watched him silently.

El Chapo had guaranteed the sale of the cocaine and marijuana he sent to the United States in the mid-eighties. On the U.S. side of the border, demand was insatiable. Cocaine was considered a drug with status.

It was ''El Chapo'' Guzmán's "strategic vision and his distinguished business intelligence" that built the business, according to Guillermo Valdés Castellanos, former director of Mexico's civilian intelligence agency, CISEN (Centro de Investigación y Seguridad Nacional).

The high levels of consumption led president Ronald Reagan to reinforce the war on drugs in 1982. In 1985, the abduction of Drug Enforcement Administration special agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena by a Mexican drug gang led the Reagan administration to close the U.S. border to traffic from Mexico, in an effort to force the Mexican government to step up efforts to find the missing agent.

After the death of Camarena, the United States government concentrated all its antinarcotics efforts in an Intelligence Center in El Paso, Texas, known as EPIC.

At the EPIC Intelligence Center the DEA began to gather information about El Chapo Guzmán. The reports from different agencies were finally consolidated in an intelligence book, based on the increasingly frequent reports about the drug trafficker.

EPIC developed an 80-page report on Guzmán's life since he was 27 years old until his first arrest in 1993.

The report obtained by Univision reveals, for example, that since the mid-eighties, Guzmán already had an international network: he negotiated with heroin sellers from Thailand. The construction of tunnels at that time was already done with architectural designs and Guzmán drove around the United States with a California driver’s license.

The DEA agrees that Colombian drug traffickers marked the beginning of El Chapo’s golden age. They referred to him by another nickname: "Speedy."

"They called him Speedy because when he received the merchandise, he immediately delivered it across the border," said one former trafficker interviewed by Univision.

Part of the success of operations using clandestine runways had to do with the way in which Colombian pilots communicated via radio with El Chapo’s people.

"They just whistled to each other, that's how they did it, through walkie talkies they spoke and they already knew the pilot was arriving," said Larry Villalobos, the DEA's former chief intelligence officer at EPIC.

The key man in these operations was Miguel Angel Martinez, a Mexican pilot that appears in this unpublished photograph and whom Guzmán paid $1 million a year.

Martinez knew El Chapo's daily routine, how he managed to visit his three wives in one day and his mounting fortune.

Years later, in a federal court in Arizona, the pilot explained that one day he received $6 million from Bernardino Meza, who would later become mayor of Agua Prieta, a city on the U.S. border.

During the hearing, the attorney asked Martinez: "What did you do with the $6 million?"

Martinez answered: "We filled bags with $20 dollar bills and I flew to Queretaro and El Chapo was waiting."

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Tunnels, pool and peppers

The first time that the United States government fully understood El Chapo's criminal ingenuity was in 1990 when a tunnel was discovered in Douglas, Arizona.

"It was the most spectacular drug seizure in my career. We described it as having a James Bond twist to it," said U.S. Customs agent, Thomas McDermott.

The dismantled structure had Guzman’s distinctive signature: fake businesses, secret rooms and hydraulic devices.

For example, a pool table in a luxurious residence in Agua Prieta hid the entrance of the tunnel. The DEA agents discovered the mechanism by accident, according to one of the agents, Terry Kirkpatrick.

"Accidentally, one of the people outside turned on a water spigot to get a drink and the pool table raised up," he said.

It was the same mechanism that Guzmán used 24 years later to escape underneath a bathtub in a house where he hid in Culiacan, Mexico.

"The tunnel looked like a drain where you could wash water into it, no one would ever suspect," said Kirkpatrick.

Guzmán wasn't put off by the discovery of the tunnel.

"After they closed his first tunnel, he invented a jalapeño pepper packaging company," said Valdés, of CISEN.

The drug was folded in paper packets and packaged in cans with sand to a standard weight of one kilogram. Operators put on labels: 'Chiles La Comadre.'

They were put on freight trains to be transported directly into the United States.

Guzman also used railroad tanker wagons filled with barrels of marijuana. The tanker was then filled with soy oil and sent to the United States.

All of this worked like a money making machine until June, 1993, when Guzman was jailed in Guatemala. He was on his way to pick up drugs and arms in El Salvador.

He never made it, marking what would be a major setback for his rising empire.