the renowned drug lord “el chapo” — 11/03/15

Today’s selection — from Zero Zero Zero by Roberto Saviano. The path to power of the Mexican drug lord El Chapo, recently escaped for the second time, now making headlines across the United States, and a folk hero to many in Mexico:

“Mexico is now, here, and [its] warlords are masters of the most sought after goods in the world, the white powder that brings in more money than the oil wells.

“The white petrol wells are in the state of Sinaloa, on the coast. Sinaloa, with rivers flowing down from the Sierra Madre to the Pacific, is so spectacular you can’t believe there’s anything else here but blinding sunlight and bare feet on the sand. … Chinese merchants brought opium to Sinaloa back in the 1800s. Black poison, they called it. And since then, Sinaloa has been full of opium. You can grow opium poppies just about anywhere; they grow wherever grain grows. All they need is the right climate: not too dry, not too humid, no frost, no hail. The climate’s good in Sinaloa; it almost never hails, and it’s close to the sea.

“The Sinaloa cartel is hegemonic. In Sinaloa, drugs provide jobs for everyone. Entire generations have fed themselves thanks to drugs. From peasants to politicians, police officers to slackers, the young and the old. Drugs need to be grown, stocked, transported, protected. In Sinaloa, all who are able are enlisted. The cartel operates in the Golden Triangle, and with over 160 million acres under its control, it’s the biggest cartel in all of Mexico. It manages a significant slice of U.S. cocaine traffic and distribution. Sinaloa narcos are present in more than eighty American cities, with cells primarily in Arizona, California, Texas, Chicago, and New York. They distribute Colombian cocaine on the American market. According to the Office of the United States Attorney General, between 1990 and 2008 the Sinaloa cartel was responsible for the importation and distribution of at least two hundred tons of cocaine, as well as vast quantities of heroin, into the United States.

1993 mugshot of Joaquín Guzmán Loera

“Until El Chapo’s arrest in 2014, Sinaloa was his realm and he was viewed in the United States as having a significance akin to a head of state. Coke, marijuana, amphetamines: Most of the substances that Americans smoke, snort, or swallow have passed through his men’s hands. From 1995 to 2014 he was the big boss of the faction that emerged from the ashes of the Guadalajara clan after the Big Bang in 1989. El Chapo, aka Shorty, five feet five inches of sheer determination. El Chapo didn’t lord it over his men, didn’t dominate them physically; he earned their trust. His real name is Joaquin Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, born on April 4, 1957, in La Tuna de Badiraguato, a small village with a few hundred inhabitants in the Sierra Madre mountains in Sinaloa. Like every other man in La Tuna, Joaquin’s father was a rancher and farmer, who raised his son on beatings and farmwork. These were the years of opium. El Chapo’s entire family was involved: a small army devoted to the cultivation of opium poppies, from dawn to dusk.

“El Chapo started at the bottom: Before he was allowed to follow the men along impassable roads to the poppy fields he had to stay at his mother’s side and bring his older brothers their lunch. One kilo of opium gum brought in eight thousand pesos for the family, the equivalent of seven hundred dollars today. The head of the family had to get the gum into the next step of the chain. And that step meant a city, maybe even Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa. No easy feat if you’re merely a farmer, but easier if the farmer in question, El Chapo’s father, is related to Pedro Avilés Pérez — a big-shot drug lord. The young El Chapo, having reached the age of twenty, began to see a way out of the poverty that had marked the lives of his ancestors. At that time it was El Padrino, Miguel Ángel Felix Gallardo, who ruled in Sinaloa: Together with his partners, Ernesto ‘Don Neto’ Fonseca Carrillo and Rafael Caro Quintero, he controlled the coming and going of every drug shipment in Mexico. Joining the organization was a natural step for the young El Chapo, as was accepting his first real challenge: handling the drugs from the fields to the border. If you want to get to the top, you can’t take pity if someone makes a mistake, you can’t back down when underlings make excuses for not keeping to the schedule. If there was a problem, El Chapo eliminated it. If a peasant was enticed by someone with a fatter wallet, El Chapo eliminated him. If a driver with a truckload of drugs got drunk and didn’t deliver his shipment the next morning, El Chapo eliminated him. Simple and effective.

“El Chapo soon proved himself trustworthy, and in a few years’ time he was one of the men closest to El Padrino. He learned many things from El Padrino, including the most important one: how to stay alive as a drug trafficker. Just like Félix Gallardo, in fact, El Chapo lived a quiet life, not too ostentatious, not too many frills. El Chapo married four times and fathered nine children, but he never surrounded himself with hordes of women.

“When El Padrino was arrested and the race to find an heir began, El Chapo decided to remain loyal to his mentor. He was methodical, and didn’t flaunt his power. He wanted to keep his family beside him, wanted his blood bonds to be his armor. He moved from Sinaloa to Guadalajara, the last place El Padrino lived before his arrest, while he based his organization in Agua Prieta, a town in the state of Sonora, convenient because it borders the United States. El Chapo remained in the shadows, and from there he governed his rapidly growing empire. Whenever he traveled, he did so incognito. People would say they’d spotted him, but it was true only one time out of a hundred. El Chapo and his men used every form of transport available to get drugs into the United States. Planes, trucks, railcars, tankers, cars. In 1993 an underground tunnel was discovered, nearly fifteen hundred feet long, sixty-five feet belowground. Still incomplete, it was going to connect Tijuana to San Diego.

“These were years of settling scores against rivals, of escapes and murders. On May 24, 1993, Sinaloa’s rival cartel, Tijuana, recruited some trustworthy killers to strike at the heart of the Sinaloa cartel. Two important travelers were expected at the Guadalajara airport that day: El Chapo Guzmán and Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, who, as archbishop of the city, had railed constantly against the drug lords’ power. The killers knew that El Chapo was traveling in a white Mercury Grand Marquis, a must for drug barons. The cardinal was in a white Mercury Grand Marquis as well. The Tijuana hit men started shooting at what they believed to be the boss of Sinaloa’s car, and others — El Chapo’s bodyguards, maybe — returned fire. The airport parking lot suddenly became hell. The shoot-out left seven men dead, among them Cardinal Posadas Ocampo, while El Chapo managed to escape, unscathed. For years people wondered if the killers really wanted to eliminate the inconvenient cardinal, or if chance had merely played a bad joke on Posadas Ocampo that morning. It was only recently that the FBI declared the killing a tragic case of mistaken identity.

“El Chapo was arrested on June 9, 1993. He continued to manage his affairs from prison with scarcely a hitch. The maximum security prison Puente Grande, where he was transferred in 1995, became his new base of operations. After eight years, however, El Chapo could no longer afford to remain behind bars: The Supreme Court had approved a law making it much easier to extradite narcos to the United States. American incarceration would mean the end of everything. So El Chapo chose the evening of January 19, 2001. The guards were bribed handsomely. One of them — Francisco Camberos Rivera, known as El Chito, or the Silent One — opened the door to El Chapo’s cell and helped him climb into a cart of dirty laundry. They headed down unguarded hallways and through wide-open electronic doors to the inner parking lot, where only one guard was on duty. El Chapo jumped out of the cart and leaped into the trunk of a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. El Chito started it up and drove him to freedom.

“El Chapo became everybody’s hero, a legend.”

Author: Roberto Saviano
Publisher: Penguin Press
Copyright 2013 by Roberto Savino
Pages 38-41
All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.
About Us is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context. There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.


Why Would Anyone Miss War?

A Marine waits to take psychological tests at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif. CreditJae C. Hong/Associated Press

SEVERAL years ago I spent time with a platoon of Army infantry at a remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan, and after the deployment I was surprised that only one of the soldiers chose to leave the military at the end of his contract; many others re-upped and eventually went on to fight for another year in the same area. The soldier who got out, Brendan O’Byrne, remained a good friend of mine as he struggled to fit in to civilian life back home.

About a year later I invited Brendan to a dinner party, and a woman asked him if he missed anything at all about life at the outpost. It was a good question: the platoon had endured a year without Internet, running water or hot food and had been in more combat than almost any platoon in the United States military. By any measure it was hell, but Brendan didn’t hesitate: “Ma’am,” he said, “I miss almost all of it.”

Civilians are often confused, if not appalled, by that answer. The idea that a psychologically healthy person could miss war seems an affront to the idea that war is evil. Combat is supposed to feel bad because undeniably bad things happen in it, but a fully human reaction is far more complex than that. If we civilians don’t understand that complexity, we won’t do a very good job of bringing these people home and making a place for them in our society.

My understanding of that truth came partly from my own time in Afghanistan and partly from my conversations with a Vietnam veteran named Karl Marlantes, who wrote about his experiences in a devastating novel called “Matterhorn.” Some time after I met Karl, a woman asked me why soldiers “compartmentalize” the experience of war, and I answered as I imagined Karl might have: because society does. We avoid any direct look at the reality of war. And both sides of the political spectrum indulge in this; liberals tend to be scandalized that war can be tremendously alluring to young men, and conservatives rarely acknowledge that war kills far more innocent people than guilty ones. Soldiers understand both of these things but don’t know how to talk about them when met with blank stares from friends and family back home.

“For a while I started thinking that God hated me because I had sinned,” Brendan told me after he got back from Afghanistan. “Everyone tells you that you did what you had to do, and I just hate that comment because I didn’t have to do any of it. I didn’t have to join the Army; I didn’t have to become airborne infantry. But I did. And that comment — ‘You did what you had to do’ — just drives me insane. Because is that what God’s going to say — ‘You did what you had to do? Welcome to heaven?’ I don’t think so.”

If society were willing to acknowledge the very real horrors of war — even a just war, as I believe some are — then men like Brendan would not have to struggle with the gap between their world view and ours. Every year on the anniversary of D-Day, for example, we acknowledge the heroism and sacrifice of those who stormed the beaches of Normandy. But for a full and honest understanding of that war, we must also remember the firebombing of Dresden, Frankfurt and Hamburg that killed as many as 100,000 Germans, as well as both conventional and nuclear strikes against Japan that killed hundreds of thousands more.

Photographs taken after allied air raids in Germany show piles of bodies 10 or 15 feet high being soaked in gasoline for burning. At first you think you’re looking at images from Nazi concentration camps, but you’re not — you’re looking at people we killed.

I am in no way questioning the strategic necessity of those actions; frankly, few of us are qualified to do so after so much time. I am simply pointing out that if we as a nation avoid coming to terms with events like these, the airmen who drop the bombs have a much harder time coming to terms with them as individuals. And they bear almost all the psychic harm.

Change history a bit, however, and imagine those men coming back after World War II to a country that has collectively taken responsibility for the decision to firebomb German cities. (Firebombing inflicted mass civilian casualties and nearly wiped out cities.) This would be no admission of wrongdoing — many wars, like Afghanistan and World War II, were triggered by attacks against us. It would simply be a way to commemorate the loss of life, as one might after a terrible earthquake or a flood. Imagine how much better the bomber crews of World War II might have handled their confusion and grief if the entire country had been struggling with those same feelings. Imagine how much better they might have fared if there had been a monument for them to visit that commemorated all the people they were ordered to kill.

At first, such a monument might be controversial — but so was the Vietnam memorial on the Mall in Washington. Eventually, however, that memorial proved to be extremely therapeutic for veterans struggling with feelings of guilt and loss after the war.

Every war kills civilians, and thankfully our military now goes to great lengths to keep those deaths to a minimum. Personally, I believe that our involvement in Afghanistan has saved far more civilian lives than it has cost. I was there in the 1990s; I know how horrific that civil war was. But that knowledge is of faint comfort to the American soldiers I know who mistakenly emptied their rifles into a truck full of civilians because they thought they were about to be blown up. A monument to the civilian dead of Iraq and Afghanistan would not only provide comfort to these young men but also signal to the world that our nation understands the costs of war.

It doesn’t matter that most civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were caused by insurgent attacks; if our soldiers died for freedom there — as presidents are fond of saying — then those people did as well. They, too, are among the casualties of 9/11. Nearly a decade after that terrible day, what a powerful message we would send to the world by honoring those deaths with our grief.

McDonald’s Objects to Russia Restaurant Closures

People sit on the terrace of a closed McDonald’s restaurant, the first to be opened in the Soviet Union in 1990, in Moscow on Aug. 21, 2014. Alexander Nemenov—AFP/Getty Images

The Russian government says conditions in some of the chain’s restaurants are unsanitary

McDonald’s on Friday objected to the Russian government’s decision to close 12 of its restaurants in the country, following weeks of highly publicized investigations into health and safety at the fast food giant’s locations.

“We are closely studying the content of the agency documents to determine what should be done to re-open the restaurants as soon as possible,” the company said in a statement. “We do not agree with the court’s decision and will appeal against it in accordance with the procedures established by the law.”

The investigations come as the United States and Russia face heightened tensions over the crisis in Ukraine. While Russian authorities maintain that the restaurants have been closed for health reasons, critics say the closures are a response to U.S. sanctions against Russia.

The Russian government is continuing “microbiology tests, sanitary and chemical tests” at other McDonald’s restaurants in Russia, according to reports.