Foreign Policy Blogs

Why El Chapo Owns Chicago

Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo" Guzman, is shown to the media after his arrest at the high security prison of Almoloya de Juarez, on the outskirts of Mexico City. (AP)

Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias “El Chapo” Guzman, is shown to the media after his arrest at the high security prison of Almoloya de Juarez, on the outskirts of Mexico City. (AP)

Chicago is the murder capital of America. Why? Because in Chicago, drugs rule. Which is the same thing as saying Joachim “El Chapo” Guzman rules. Is this news? NPR seems to think so — in a recent interview, NPR’s Steve Inskeep asks Bloomberg reporter John Lippert if “El Chapo” Guzman, the leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, is Chicago’s “new Al Capone.” Good question, Steve, given the Windy City’s rising murder rate (500+ last year), and weekly body counts that have government officials calling, not for more effective drug enforcement investigations up and down the north/south U.S. interstates carrying drugs into the U.S. and money out—but for stronger gun control legislation.

For drug enforcement agents, El Chapo’s penetration and domination of the U.S. market is old, old news, and they understand, as does reporter John Lippert, that escalating violence in Chicago, Toledo, Minneapolis, Indianapolis and L.A., represents internecine warfare between retail drug dealers in these cities to increase their own portion of “the street,” the only way left, given El Chapo’s iron grip over supply, distribution, and pricing, to increase the corner dealer’s profits.

John Lippert:

The way the DEA are talking about it is that this may be unprecedented in the history of crime. And they say, okay, well, we all grew up talking about the mafia and everything like that, and they flat out say…Al Capone or the Mafia that we grew up talking about can’t begin to do what these guys are doing. It’s different.

You bet it is. What Inskeep’s three-minute interview doesn’t tell you is that the Mexican Mafia has been exploiting the Mexican-American population around Chicago for three decades, even assigning the region the code name of “Chihuahua,” the home base of the notorious Juarez cartel in Mexico.

As far back as 2006, authorities wiretapping cartel communications overheard El Chapo referring to Chicago as his “home port,” official confirmation that the days of selling dope to buyers or wholesalers at the border were over for good. Guzman had succeeded in eliminating rival cartels (eliminating the Fuentes family in Juarez), bringing his product thousands of miles inland to the largest transportation hub in the United States, and appropriating the entire supply chain, paying off border officials, local law enforcement on both sides of the border, buying fleets of transport vehicles, hiring drivers, purchasing or building warehouses along the way, setting up collection and distribution centers, making his game the only one in town.

If you’re shooting, snorting or chipping in America’s heartland, your stuff has El Chapo’s (“Shorty’s”) name written all over it.

The Myth

El Chapo is no ordinary cartel kingpin. Born into poverty, his entrepreneurial skills surfaced around the age kids north of the border start first grade: Joachin began his education selling oranges in a marketplace near Badiraguato, Sinaloa, displaying the kind of bravado and hustle that eventually drew the attention of cartel talent-hunters like Pedro Aviles Perez and Hector ‘El Guero’ Luis Palma Salazar, both tasked with logistical innovation and identifying new methods of shipping heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine.

Guzman proved a logistical wizard (the feds call him “the tunnel king”), and today the fugitive, described by Forbes magazine as “the most powerful drug lord in history,” has a $5 million bounty (2.3 million offered by the Mexican government) “for information leading to his arrest” hanging over his head.

El Chapo, reportedly sighted in the Sierra Madre mountains, on the beach in San Blas Nayarit, in San Pancho, Guanajuato, in his hideout in Michoacan, and traveling through Monterrey, has built a mythical identity. The drug lord has generously filled the gaps when Mexican authorities fail to provide basis services to rural populations. He’s breezed into upscale restaurants near the U.S.-Mexico border with henchmen who, on entering, confiscate cell phones from staff and fellow diners, and, on leaving, pay everyone’s dinner bill, sent his young twenty-something third wife to a top-tier L.A. hospital for delivery of twin girls (birth certificate reads “father unknown”). In 2001, he paid almost everyone in charge of security at a maximum security prison near Juarez (total cost reputed to be $2.5 million) to facilitate his escape via a prison laundry cart. It’s also reported that El Chapo, a romantic as drug kingpins go, is adverse (when he has a choice) to killing women.

Sinaloa Cartel Owns Chicago Drug Trade

How millions of dollars of illegal drugs move thousands of miles undetected from Mexico to Chicago, and how commensurate criminal dollars in bulk cash are transported back to Mexico with impunity, is a story almost as fantastic as the story of Guzman’s life and current reign. He’s also cited by Forbes as “Mexico’s 10th Richest Man,” with his personal wealth estimated at $1 billion. One drug agent tells me that the explanation is a simple one: A total absence of coordinated enforcement between local, state, and federal authorities in the United States and “protection” in Mexico.

And his take doesn’t end there:

Jurisdiction still falls to ICE, but at this point, the agency is focused on immigration, not drug investigations. The old Customs Service, which did undertake the kind of comprehensive investigation the flood of drugs and money up and down US Interstate Highways 25, 35, and 55 requires, no longer possesses, in its present iteration, the clout, the knowledge, the authority, or the manpower. The political will is missing, I’m told, as is the always rare, nights and weekends commitment to the job—as opposed to the ‘career.’ Sure, occasionally, local cops pull over a truck or a van with a busted tail light and trip over a load of dope, but that’s about it. Everybody knows, they get all excited when they grab a minuscule, meaningless load, but when it comes to attacking and eliminating El Chapo’s operation in the US, all you hear is ‘not my job.’

drug rts inside USIt’s a hard assessment, but this same agent reports that when asked to support a money laundering investigation some years ago, neither the Customs office in Chicago nor the Office of the U.S. Attorney there, responded in the affirmative. Whether it was a reluctance to take on Mexico’s politicians and the “sovereignty issue” — or just more work — the answer was “not interested.”

The result is that, in 2013, vans and trucks filled with tons of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine continue to roll, unimpeded, 24/7, up the interstate highways from El Paso and other points on the U.S.-Mexico border, through a myriad border towns, small municipalities along routes 25, 35, and 55 further north (DEA tags it “Corridor F“), to secret warehouses and drop-off points along the way. (Some shipments enter the U.S. under special bonds, which means cargo doors are sealed, to be opened, ostensibly, at designated points of arrival within the U.S. — say Chicago — but these “seals” are routinely popped at intermediate points, illegal cargo removed, legitimate merchandise substituted, and cargo doors resealed.)

The drug money, garnered from various collection centers around Chicago or along the interstates, can also travel under bond, as sealed cargo, so targeting these shipments makes sense. But who’s going to do it? And a more important question: can any kind of “dragnet” — an attack on the problem from the outside — really get the job done?

From the Inside Out

No, says a 30-year veteran of the drug wars, a former undercover agent who, in 1990, discovered El Chapo’s famous 330 foot-long drug tunnel connecting Agua Prieta, in Mexico, to Douglas, AZ. Dragnets won’t work, he tells me, because they still leave the larger operational target, Guzman’s Mexico-to-Chicago infrastructure, intact.

The key, he says, is infiltrating the operation, getting inside, identifying the weak points between Chicago and the Plaza, scrutinizing the operational hurdles and requirements every trucker has to navigate — check points, way stations, state DOT people. Get to know the players drug/money mules depend on. Most of the time, drugs and cash are hidden in compartments, and someone in some garage or warehouse is outfitting the El Chapo’s vehicles with those compartments — find him, flip him, and keep him in play with two masters, the cartel and the U.S. government, the latter the only one who counts. Do it from inside and you know who to investigate, to wiretap, and to track — and the longer you control informants inside El Chapo’s operation, the more likely you are to collapse his infrastructure.

You let the money, in particular, find its way home via every possible tributary.You wait, watch where it goes, from hand to criminal hand, into casa de cambios, into the fraudulent purchase of retail goods resold for fewer but cleaner dollars, into banks, and then, finally, you come down hard on that southward flow of bulk cash, the only way drug dollars can be returned to Mexico, and the players whose only job is to push those criminal dollars through the laundering process and into the hands of some “private wealth manager” in a U.S. bank.

Why prioritize drug dollars as opposed to illegal drugs? Because stopping the money, making profit impossible, is the surest way of bringing down the entire criminal operation. Guzman isn’t going to send drugs into the U.S. market if he doesn’t get paid. Grab the money, and you don’t have to worry about grabbing the drugs.

To date, there are no joint task forces at work, no MOU’s binding local, state, and federal enforcement to a shared mission, no urgency at ICE or sufficient political support within DEA to trigger the kind of investigation we need to go after the illegal drugs and dirty cash traveling up and down U.S. highways in plain view.

The violence spawned by cartel competition over supply routes leading into the U.S., 50,000+ Mexicans dead, may have waned, El Chapo emerging as heavyweight champion, yes, of the world. But his consolidated victory, his monopoly over the supply, distribution, and hence, the price of drugs in “Chihuahua,” is generating a similar, bound-to-increase violence, born out of competition for a larger piece of the drug pie, on the streets of cities across the Midwest. Murders are up as drug gangs and corner dealers struggle to eliminate the competition and

cartel chainsaw used to decapitate drug rivals

grab “more street.” Citizens and police officers are caught in the cross-fire, African-American communities prime battlegrounds.

Gun control, we are told, is the answer in Chicago. Go for it. In Mexico, when rival drug gangs fighting for turf run out of firepower, they use machetes and chainsaws. We have the photos to prove it—decapitated bodies hanging from highway overpasses less than an hour’s drive from El Paso.

Whether the drug thugs across the Chicago region are “more civilized” than their counterparts in Juarez is a question no one is asking.



Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.