Don Winslow, Author of ‘The Cartel,’ Levels About El Chapo
It’s been a month since Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán, the world’s most notorious drug lord, broke out of Mexico’s maximum security Altiplano penitentiary. The audacious escape, which included a mile-long tunnel dug right beneath the prison´s walls and a motorcycle on rails to expedite the kingpin’s departure, has led to an unprecedented crisis for Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Eighty-seven percent of Mexicans believe Peña’s government either had prior knowledge or helped Chapo (“Shorty”) get away. Questions and conspiracy theories abound. How exactly did Guzmán escape? Where is he? Did the government open the door? What will he do now? Is more violence in store for Mexico?
For answers, I looked to novelist Don Winslow, who has devoted a decade and a half to research about the Mexican drug trade, to find some (entertaining) answers. After all, Winslow’s most recent novel, The Cartel, has the ring of truth on just about every page. These are excerpts from our email correspondence:
Krauze: You’ve been fascinated by El Chapo for a while now (you’re not alone). What kind of man do you think he is?
Winslow: You know, I’m not as much fascinated by Guzmán as I am by the role of the Sinaloa Cartel over the past 15 years as the driving engine in the Mexican drug conflicts. So, by extension, I had to study Guzmán.
Listen, I think he’s brilliant, a genius businessman, very organized and a great strategist. He’s also utterly ruthless. Like most people, he loves his family, he loves his children, and he’s had bitter personal losses— a brother killed, a son killed. But let’s not forget that he has the blood of thousands on his hands. His own suffering has not made him sensitive to the suffering of others. Like any sociopath, he’s only capable of feeling his own pain.
Why has he been so successful? What has set him apart from other capos?
Above all, his pragmatism. Guzmán has rarely let his personal feelings get in the way of business. So we have seen him make peace with bitter enemies (such as Zeta leader Heriberto Lazcano) when it was the practical thing to do, and then drop those alliances when it was expedient. He has also for the most part avoided the mistake of flying too high.
He studied at the feet of both Amado Carillo Fuentes and Miguel Angel Gallardo, learning from both their successes and their failures. He saw how hubris eventually brought both of these powerful men down, and so has eschewed the flamboyance of some of the narcos and not allowed his own men to show off. (His break with the Beltran-Leyva group—one of his few tactical errors—came because he thought they were too much in the public eye.) He’s also chosen his close associates, such as Mayo Zambada, very carefully for their diplomatic skills and government connections. And Guzmán makes other people money, always the key to longevity in organized crime.
Did you expect his escape?
Didn’t everyone? Listen, as soon as Mexico didn’t extradite him, the so-called “escape’”was ordained. It was only a matter of time. This wasn’t an escape, it was a departure.
Do you believe the official version of events? I’ve heard you suggest otherwise…
The official version of events is patently ridiculous. It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Even if you take it on face value, it speaks to either criminal negligence and/or blatant corruption. There are no other choices. But I don’t believe the official version. I have serious doubts that Guzmán went through that tunnel at all. Let’s remember there was an “official version” after his first “escape” in 2001— some nonsense about a laundry cart, which proved to be untrue. The tunnel seems to me to be just a more elaborate cover story. If a man has the power and influence to get a mile long tunnel built under a maximum security prison, that man has the power and influence to walk out the front door, just like he did the last time.
What do you think happened after he left prison this time around? Let’s imagine the scenario of his next steps after escaping from Altiplano…
He went by car or helicopter to a safe house, where he holed up until the next night, when he moved to Sinaloa or Durango, protected by his own men and probably police. Remember that he had a four and a half hour head start.
Where do you think he is now?
Somewhere in the mountains of Sinaloa, where he’s harbored by the local police and the population. I’ve heard reports that he’s in Guatemala, which he has done in the past, but I don’t think he’d risk crossing a border. Why should he leave his base where he feels (justifiably) that he’s secure. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Bin Laden —for years we heard rumors about him being all over the world, but he was in the same house in Pakistan, where he was being sheltered.
After his escape from Puente Grande, Chapo sought to rebuild an empire and all hell broke loose. What will he do now?
Business as usual. Do we really think that he wasn’t running his business from inside prison? He had cell phones—all he needed. The Sinaloa Cartel didn’t weaken during his sabbatical, if anything it got stronger, triggering a heroin epidemic in the U.S.
Guzmán doesn’t have to rebuild his empire— it’s still there— the question is whether he can maintain it. The key issue is whether his alliance with Ismael Zambada is still in place. If it is, we should expect Sinaloan hegemony for some time (with an awareness that all empires eventually fall). If not, we should expect to see intra-Sinaloa violence within the next few months, which will trigger chaos as the smaller cartels try to take advantage of the strife and move in.
Some conspiracy theorists suggest the Peña Nieto government let Chapo go in order to restore a certain Pax Sinaloense to the current chaos, brought on by groups like the violent Nueva Generación en Jalisco…
It’s a plausible theory, and was even before Guzmán’s arrest. A number of serious journalists have suggested that the government aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel as a means to restore some stability. If you look at the low numbers of arrests of SC people versus the other cartels, the theory holds water.
I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I’ve also suggested that the government colluded with this so-called escape for that exact reason—because the rise of such as the Nueve Generación has caused legitimate fear of another era of chaos and violence, and that Guzmán on the outside is more able to enforce the Pax Sinaloense. And it’s understandable for an administration to say that America’s drug problem should be America’s problem and not Mexico’s.
What do you make of Guzmán’s fame, his folk hero status? Are there some actual facts behind the myth or is he just another product of this far-reaching “narco cultura”?
Look, this guy’s not Robin Hood. He’s a mass murderer. But this folk hero status of narcos is an old story dating all the way back to Jesus Malverde. Again, it’s understandable—Guzmán has thumbed his nose at two governments and gotten away with it. He’s built churches, schools and clinics. So do many terrorists. His folk hero status makes me sick. The folk heroes should be those brave men and women who’ve sacrificed their lives fighting the cartels, fighting corruption, fighting an oppressive government, fighting to tell the story. Those are the heroes, not dirt-bags like Joaquin Guzmán. Let’s sing some songs about them.
Will we ever see Chapo again?
Sure, but probably not behind bars. The myth is that he disappeared for 13 years the last time. I guess he did, if by “disappear” we mean throwing yourself an elaborate wedding and inviting politicians and police, going to public restaurants, attending New Year’s Eve parties at seaside resorts. It reminds me of some song lyrics by Townes Van Zandt: “All the federales say, they could have had him any day, They only let him get away, out of kindness, I suppose.” Uh-huh. The government has always known where Guzmán was, they probably know where he is now, and that’s why they’ll look everywhere else.