Personality Profile

Who is ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán: Notorious Mexican drugs boss

Mexican drugs kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán was once the leader of the world’s most powerful cartel. He escaped from jail twice in spectacular fashion before being caught in 2016 and extradited to the US, where he has been on trial.

Who is he?

Born in 1957 to a family of farmers, Guzmán’s first exposure to drug trafficking came while working in marijuana and opium poppy fields.

After that, he served an apprenticeship of sorts under Miguel Angel Félix Gallardo (or The Godfather), the chief of the all-powerful Guadalajara cartel.

His rise was swift, setting up his own cartel, the Sinaloa, in north-west Mexico in the late 1980s. Over time, it became one of the biggest traffickers of drugs to the US and, in 2009, Guzmán entered Forbes’ list of the world’s richest men at number 701, with an estimated worth of $1bn.

El Chapo (or “Shorty” – he is only 5ft6, or 1.64m) narrowly escaped assassination by a rival gang in 1993 but was arrested by Mexican authorities and sentenced to 20 years in jail.

The Mexican attorney general’s office described him as “egocentric, narcissistic, shrewd, persistent, tenacious, meticulous, discriminating and secretive”, according to the New Yorker magazine.

How did he break out of jail twice?

Guzmán’s first escape came in 2001, from the Puente Grande maximum security prison, reportedly hidden in a laundry basket. He did so with the help of corrupt prison guards.

He then stayed on the run for 13 years, and used this time to consolidate his empire. He was caught for a second time in February 2014 in Sinaloa state, and sent to Altiplano prison in central Mexico.

Joaquin Guzman Loera, Known as "El Chapo" is pictured on July 10, 1993
Image captionGuzmán pictured at La Palma prison in 1993

But in July 2015, he fled, again, this time through a 1.5km-long (one mile-long) tunnel that led directly underneath his cell.

The escape was elaborate and carefully planned. The tunnel had ventilation, lighting and stairs and the exit was hidden by a construction site.

Mexican TV stations later aired footage that showed that guards failed to act when loud hammering was heard from inside Guzmán’s cell, much to the humiliation of the Mexican government.

Picture taken from a tv screen of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman on the moment of his escape
Image captionCCTV footage shows the moment Guzmán escaped from prison in 2015
View of a motorcycle adapted to a rail used by Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to move through a tunnel
Image captionThe motorcycle adapted to a rail used by Guzmán to move through the tunnel

His freedom was short lived. In January 2016, Guzmán was tracked down to a house in an affluent part of Los Mochis, in Sinaloa. He had only just moved there, having been hiding out in the country before then.

Five of Guzmán’s guards were killed in the raid by Mexican marines and he managed to flee, but was caught in a car while leaving town.

One year later, he was extradited to the US, where he has been tried on charges that include drug trafficking with the intent to distribute and homicide.

What is his reputation?

Even for a country that produced numerous drugs lords, Guzmán has a fearsome reputation for violence, with his gang’s rivalries with others leaving thousands dead in Mexico’s drugs war.

But among some in his home state, Guzmán is a folk hero, a popular subject of “narcocorridos” – musical tributes to drugs barons.

El Chapo baseball cap
Image captionEl Chapo merchandise being sold in Sinaloa

He was said to be a gourmand, walking into a restaurant with his bodyguards while still at large, asking other diners to give up their mobile phones, then paying everyone’s bill as he left.

In October 2015, while on the run, he gave an interview to Hollywood actor Sean Penn at a jungle hideout. “I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats,” he said in a story published in Rolling Stone magazine.

Guzmán defended his entry into the narcotics trade, saying there “was no other way to work in our economy, to be able to make a living”.

After his capture it was reported – though never formally confirmed – that Mexican authorities found Guzmán by tracking Penn.

What did we learn at his trial?

His trial in New York started in November 2018, under intense security and jurors, for example, remained anonymous.

Disturbing testimony revealed how a trusted hitman kept a “murder room” in Guzmán’s mansion on the US border, which featured a drain so it was easier to clean up after killings.

Another witness described seeing “El Chapo” brutally beat at least three men before shooting them. One was later buried alive.


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