El Chapo and the Secret History of the Heroin Crisis
BY DON WINSLOW AUG 9, 2016
If you wonder why America is in the grips of a heroin epidemic that kills two hundred people a week, take a hard look at the legalization of pot, which destroyed the profits of the Mexican cartels. How did they respond to a major loss in revenue? Like any company, they created an irresistible new product and flooded the market. The scariest part: this might not have happened with El Chapo in charge.
The phone rang. It was July 2014, and I was in a motel room in Tucumcari, New Mexico, about to step into the shower. My wife and I were two days into a cross-country drive from our home in California, and I wanted to clean up before we went to a sports bar across the parking lot to grab something to eat.
Looking at the phone, I recognized the number and felt my heart drop. The woman was a close friend. Her twenty-three-year-old son had struggled with heroin addiction for several years.
I knew the young man. He was smart, talented, funny—and charming when he wasn't high or jonesing. He was supposed to have called me that day to discuss getting back into school.
I didn't get that call.
It was his mother on the phone, sobbing, barely able to stammer out the words that I already knew she was going to say. "He's gone."
That afternoon, she told me, he was walking to a treatment center that finally had a bed for him, but he stopped for one last "get well" fix. He died on the sidewalk.
His mother and I were on the phone for quite a while. Mostly I listened, because what was there to say? Then I got into the shower and cried.
I've been writing about and researching the so-called War on Drugs for more than twenty years. During that time I've been to funerals, I've sat with the families of teenage hitmen, I've explained to people why their loved ones were killed, providing information that the government would not. I've analyzed autopsy photos, trying to put names to anonymous victims. I've watched the atrocity videos. I thought I was inured to it, hardened to insensitivity by the numbing sameness of this never-ending tragedy. I thought I was beyond tears.
This one hurt. It was personal (why hadn't he called me, why the fuck hadn't he called me?), and, moreover, I knew how it had happened.
It was his mother on the phone, sobbing, barely able to stammer out the words that I already knew she was going to say. "He's gone."
The heroin that killed him came from Mexico. The people who grew the poppies, manufactured the drug, and shipped it north were members of Mexico's most powerful drug-trafficking organization, and the death of my friend's son came as a direct result of a business decision made by several of these men.
One of them was Joaquín Guzmán Loera.
The jefe of the Sinaloa Cartel, the largest drug trafficker in the world. Aka "El Chapo."
|El Chapo, 1993. Getty|
Guzmán had worked and killed his way up to the big leagues by the time he first went to prison, in 1993. While he was running his business from his suite inside Puente Grande federal prison, I was working on a book called The Power of the Dog, the first of three novels I've written about the evolution of the Mexican drug scene. I was talking to cops and convicts, drug traffickers and addicts, gangbangers and their families. I was in the prisons and on the streets, in the archives and the courts, on the border and across it. I was still working on that book when Guzmán made his first escape in 2001.
At the time, Mexican drug traffic was divided among several major and a dozen minor groups, the most important being the Juárez Cartel, the Tijuana Cartel, and the Gulf Cartel, with its hyperviolent armed wing, the Zetas.
When Guzmán got out of Puente Grande, he sought to control the entire Mexican drug business under the name of the Sinaloa Cartel. Over the next ten years, he went to war against the other traffickers.
That war took more than a hundred thousand lives in Mexico, with more than twenty-two thousand people still "missing." It's been a catastrophe on this side of the border, too, directly causing, among other things, the recent heroin epidemic that has killed thousands, among them my friend's son.
Last summer I went on a book tour for my novel The Cartel. At every stop on that tour, I met people who had lost a loved one to drug-related violence in Mexico or to a drug overdose here in the U. S. In Scottsdale a woman asked me if I knew anything about her best friend's murder. (I did.) In Seattle a man asked if I had any information about his brother-in-law's kidnapping. (I didn't.)
One night was the anniversary of my friend's son's death. I called her from outside a bookstore in a Los Angeles mall and then went in to talk about the damn novel.
THE POT PARADOX
Okay, I'm going to say it: The heroin epidemic was caused by the legalization of marijuana.
We wanted legal weed, and for the most part, we got it. Four states have legalized it outright, others have decriminalized it, and in many jurisdictions police refuse to enforce the laws that are on the books, creating a de facto street legalization.
Good news, right?
Not for the Sinaloa Cartel, which by the time Colorado passed Amendment 64 in 2012 had become the dominant cartel in Mexico. Weed was a major profit center for them, but suddenly they couldn't compete against a superior American product that also had drastically lower transportation and security costs.
In a single year, the cartel suffered a 40 percent drop in marijuana sales, representing billions of dollars. Mexican marijuana became an almost worthless product. They've basically stopped growing the shit: Once-vast fields in Durango now lie fallow.
More good news, right?
Yeah, no. Guzmán and his boys are businessmen. They're not going to take a forty-point hit and not do something about it. They had to make up those profits somewhere.
|A poster calling for help with the arrest of thirty-six Sinaloa Cartel members, with El Chapo at the top.|
And their addiction was expensive. One capsule of Oxy might sell on the street for thirty dollars, and an addict might need ten hits a day.
Well, shit, they thought. We have some of the best poppy fields in the world. Opium, morphine, Oxy, heroin—they're basically the same drug, so …
The Sinaloa Cartel decided to undercut the pharmaceutical companies. They increased the production of Mexican heroin by almost 70 percent, and also raised the purity level, bringing in Colombian cooks to create "cinnamon" heroin as strong as the East Asian product. They had been selling a product that was about 46 percent pure, now they improved it to 90 percent.
Their third move was classic market economics—they dropped the price. A kilo of heroin went for as much as $200,000 in New York City a few years ago, cost $80,000 in 2013, and now has dropped to around $50,000. More of a better product for less money: You can't beat it.
At the same time, American drug and law-enforcement officials, concerned about the dramatic surge in overdose deaths from pharmaceutical opioids (165,000 from 1999 to 2014), cracked down on both legal and illegal distribution, opening the door for Mexican heroin, which sold for five to ten bucks a dose.
But pill users were not accustomed to the potency of this new heroin. Even heroin addicts were taken by surprise.
As a result, overdose deaths have skyrocketed, more than doubling from 2000 to 2014. More people—47,055—died from drug overdoses in 2014 than in any other year in American history. (Perhaps the most famous of these, Philip Seymour Hoffman, died on February 2, 2014, right at the height of the epidemic.) That's 125 people a day, more than five lives every hour, a fatality level that matched the AIDS epidemic's peak in 1995.
PANDORA'S NEW BOX
On February 21, 2014, after thirteen years of being the most wanted man in Mexico (despite frequent appearances at restaurants, concerts, and holiday parties), Guzmán was recaptured.
When journalists called to get my comment, I had a one-word answer: Iraq.
"What do you mean?" they asked. I reminded them that in the power vacuum that followed Saddam Hussein's capture and subsequent execution, Iraq splintered into sectarian violence, Shiite against Sunni. ISIS came into being, overran Iraqi and Syrian cities, and launched a reign of terror.
Look, I shed no tears for either Hussein or Guzmán. Both were killers and torturers. But the fact is that the horrific violence of Guzmán's war of conquest had largely abated by 2014, precisely because he had won the war (with at least the passive assistance of the Mexican and U. S. governments) and established what's come to be called the Pax Sinaloa.
The Sinaloan Peace.
Historically, the Sinaloa Cartel has been the least violent of the Mexican drug-trafficking organizations. Admittedly, this isn't a high bar to clear, but it has long been axiomatic that the Mexican government felt that it could at least talk to Guzmán and his partners in ways it never could with, for instance, the Zetas.
Many journalists and writers, myself among them, believe that the Mexican government eventually supported the Sinaloa Cartel during the worst years of the drug war in an attempt to establish some modicum of order. The numbers back this theory—the Sinaloa Cartel, while by far the largest group, makes up only 12 percent of the thousands of police and military arrests and killings of narcos.
Guzmán and his partners were famously averse to violence against civilians (again, this is all relative). For instance, Guzmán prohibited his people from carrying out kidnappings, a lucrative business for the other cartels.
|A bullet-splattered windshield on a vehicle held for evidence from a drug-related assassination. Getty|
Which is why the Mexican government was, shall we say, ambivalent about Guzmán's capture in the first place. And let's face it—if corruption were an Olympic event, Mexico would be a perennial gold-medal winner. The Sinaloa Cartel had simply purchased elements of the Mexican government on the local, state, and federal levels. Zambada in particular was the political connection between the cartel and the Mexican government and business powers.
That, coupled with the fact that the cartels control somewhere between 8 and 12 percent of the Mexican economy, gave the Sinaloans enormous power and influence. With billions of dollars in drug profits invested in legitimate business, the economy of Mexico is simply dependent on the drug trade.
Just seven months after Guzmán's capture, as the Sinaloan Peace faltered, Mexico saw its highest-profile massacre in years. On September 26, 2014, forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college went missing in Iguala, Mexico, a town three hours south of Mexico City.
|A protestor holds a sign with all forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college who went missing. Getty|
The students were taken to a dump on the outskirts of the nearest town. Fifteen died of suffocation on the drive there. The rest were interrogated and then killed, their bodies burned with gasoline and old tires.
The students' crime? One version has it that the local mayor simply didn't like the students' left-wing politics. Okay, so they had their police turn them over to…narcos? Sure, that makes sense, about as much sense as any of the other cover stories that Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto's government has asked us to accept.
The second explanation is a Mexican classic that gets reheated every time there's a massacre—the narcos of Guerreros Unidos suspected some of the students of being associated with a rival trafficking group, Los Rojos.
It's possible, and this is where the Iraq analogy plays out. Just as Hussein's demise unleashed ancient hatreds, Guzmán's capture revived old blood feuds, the complexity of which could fill a season of Game of Thrones.
The condensed version: Guzmán and the four Beltrán Leyva brothers were once close friends, but they had a falling out after Guzmán had one of the brothers arrested and another was killed during an arrest attempt. One of the battlefields of the ensuing war between the Beltrán Leyva Organization and the Sinaloa Cartel was Guerrero State, where the students were massacred. The Sinaloa Cartel took it from BLO after bloody fighting.
The Guerreros Unidos narcos who murdered the students were a faction loyal to BLO who only reluctantly gave their fealty to the Sinaloans after being defeated in the war. Now, in the aftermath of Guzmán's capture, the remnants of BLO saw the opportunity for a comeback.
|El Chapo's second arrest. Getty|
Sunni versus Shiite.
In a Sinaloa Cartel–controlled Guerrero, the murders of forty-three college students would have required Guzmán's explicit permission, which he would not have given. That Guerreros Unidos felt free to perpetrate this massacre is deeply problematic for the future of a peaceful Mexico.
|Nine alleged members of the Sinaloa Cartel are presented to the press, 2010. Getty|
EL CHAPO'S "ESCAPE"
The end of the Pax Sinaloa probably also had something to do with Guzmán's second escape from prison, on July 12, 2015.The details of the caper were catnip to the media—the story was that Guzmán had gone through a trapdoor in his shower (yes, he had a private shower, complete with a "privacy wall"; I will leave you to ponder the concept of a privacy wall in a maximum-security prison) into a mile-long tunnel through which he rode a motorcycle, right under the noses of oblivious prison authorities who apparently heretofore believed they had a wicked gopher problem.
|Guzmán 's trapdoor. Getty|
Gentle reader, the man is worth $1 billion. He was thinking about buying the Chelsea Football Club. He went out the front door.
After Chapo Guzmán became a household name, the media was voracious for details about his life. He grew up poor, harvesting opium in the fields when he was eight years old. He started selling his own cocaine at age fifteen. All of this is true. He gave money to the poor. (True.) He built schools, clinics, churches. (True, true, true.) He was good to his mother. (True.)
He had escaped before. (Sort of true.) We'd better run this down here, because the history of Guzmán's various arrests and escapes gets a bit confusing:
1993: Guzmán was arrested and sentenced to twenty years at a maximum-security prison, which he ran as his personal country club, replete with call girls, gourmet food and wine, and weekly movie nights.
2001: Guzmán made his first "escape," which, like his most recent one, wasn't an escape at all. (An escape generally doesn't involve the active participation of one's jailers.) The cover story that year was that he went out in a laundry cart, but insiders allege he actually went off the roof in a helicopter.
2014: Guzmán was recaptured, probably in a deal that his partner Zambada made to get Zambada's son out of a ten-to-life cocaine-trafficking rap in Arizona. (The son has disappeared from any U. S. federal-prison registries—read: Witness Protection Program.)
2015: Guzmán escaped again, the cover story this time being the tunnel.
I gave the same explanation to the media over and over again: Guzmán didn't escape; he was let out so that he could try to reestablish order.
THE ISIS OF MEXICO
If Mexico has become Iraq, then the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) is the country's ISIS. Even its name suggests that it considers itself something different, a new breed of narco ready to take over and correct the failures of the previous generation. There's some truth to that viewpoint—one of the Sinaloa Cartel's problems is indeed generational. The frankly brilliant leadership that brought it to prominence is dead or graying.
The Jalisco New Generation Cartel used to be a wing of the Sinaloa Cartel under the leadership of Ignacio "Nacho" Coronel. But Nacho's organization broke in half after he was killed in a shootout with the Mexican army in 2010, and one of those factions, Los Torcidos (the Twisted Ones), evolved into CJNG.
The CJNG boss, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, "El Mencho," did three years in a California prison for heroin trafficking and then came back to Mexico to head up the assassination squad of the Torcidos. At the time, their major target was the rival Zetas, and El Mencho carried out the 2011 massacre of thirty-five of them in Veracruz, then another thirty-two a month later.
El Mencho's son, inevitably glossed "El Menchito," was once a close Guzmán ally, but he was captured in January 2014. A month later, Guzmán was arrested and El Mencho saw his opportunity to split from the Sinaloa Cartel.
What makes CJNG so ISIS-like is that they just don't give a shit. To consolidate power, El Mencho allegedly authorized the murder of Jalisco's tourism secretary and the assassination of a congressman.
In March 2015, lugging assault rifles and grenade launchers, CJNG gunmen rolled into a town and killed five police officers. Two weeks later, they ambushed a police convoy and killed fifteen officers. The next day, they murdered the police chief of another town.
In April 2016, they shot down a military helicopter with a rocket launcher. Now they are taking on the Sinaloa Cartel in Baja, threatening the stability of the border region. Law-enforcement sources tell me that CJNG has also allied with a revived Beltrán Leyva group to take on their old bosses in Acapulco, leading to renewed violence in that resort town.
Just as this mess was heating up, a new drug—actually an old drug—entered the scene. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is thirty to fifty times as strong as heroin. It was developed in 1960 by Janssen Pharmaceuticals (now a division of Johnson & Johnson) as a treatment for the severe pain caused by terminal cancer.
It's a versatile killer.
Crystal Sharee Moulden's body was found in a Baltimore alley last June. The straight-A student had shot a dose of fentanyl-laced heroin. She was sixteen years old. Photos on her obituary page show a smiling girl with her cheerleading squad.
In New Orleans, The Times-Picayune reported that fentanyl deaths exceeded the number of murders for the first month of 2016. In Connecticut, fentanyl-related deaths increased by 151 percent between 2014 and 2015 and are expected to rise another 77 percent in 2016.
For the narcos, the advantages of fentanyl over heroin are enormous.
First of all, it's made in a lab, so you don't need fields of poppies that can be raided, fumigated, or seized. You don't need hundreds of campesinos to harvest your crop and you don't need to take or control territory. (Well, not territory for cultivation—you still have to control access to smuggling turf, hence the renewed violence in Baja, where the murder rate has tripled.)
No wonder the DEA estimates that the importation of fentanyl from Mexico is up by 65 percent from 2014.
Those who survive become more addicted. The cartels mix fentanyl with heroin because once an addict has shot that mix, they won't go back to "just heroin," since they can't get high on it anymore.
The combination of lab-produced illegal fentanyl and the fracturing of the Sinaloa Cartel is a catastrophe for law enforcement and American society as a whole but an absolute boon for the narcos seeking to supplant the old order. Splinter groups such as CJNG can easily use the enormous profit potential of fentanyl to fund their rebellions, and those same profits will encourage them toward violence to control the smuggling routes.
ISIS is waning in Iraq largely because it can no longer pay its fighters. Fentanyl assures the new narcos that they will not have that problem. All they'll need is the will for violence, and they already have that, in spades. Mexico has done little to fill the vacuum created by Guzmán's fall. As a result, there will not be three groups seeking to fill that gap, there will be dozens.
On the American side, the rise of splinter groups makes it all the harder for law enforcement to track and intercept the drug. We'll no longer know where's it coming from, and worse, what's in it. First responders will not be able to tell if they're dealing with pure heroin, heroin laced with fentanyl, pure fentanyl, fentanyl cut with God knows what … there will be pharmacological chaos.
We talk about the heroin epidemic.
Fentanyl will be the plague.
SEAN PENN WHO?
Guzmán's months of freedom after July 2015 were a farce. As the media played an endless game of "Where's Waldo?" (he's in Colombia, he's in Costa Rica, he's in Los Angeles, he's in Donald Trump's hair), Mexican and American intelligence almost certainly had a line on Guzmán's whereabouts from the moment that he didn't emerge from the tunnel.
Certainly by the fall, Mexican authorities knew that Guzmán was frequenting the coastal town of Los Mochis, in Sinaloa State, where he was eventually captured. The house he was living in wasn't remote but on a four-lane boulevard around the corner from the mother of Sinaloa's governor.
(Shades of Abbottabad, anyone?)
At one point he threatened to have Donald Trump whacked. (Oddly enough, Trump didn't respond with a dismissive nickname, maybe because, of all the Mexicans who would scratch a check for the wall, Guzmán would have jumped at the chance, as it would increase his profits.)
Then Guzmán pissed off a lot of people by trying to take over the domestic sale of drugs, especially heroin, from the independent storefront sellersin Sinaloa. This uncharacteristically stupid move caused an uprising in the southern half of Sinaloa and constricted Guzmán's freedom of movement. The gangs who controlled the local markets wanted Guzmán's hands out of their pockets and were ready to go to the AKs to do it, threatening to derail the whole gravy train—tens of billions of dollars that Guzmán's partners were making from international trafficking of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and, to a shrinking extent, marijuana.
Guzmán's partners in the Sinaloa Cartel were getting fed up with his high-profile antics—Ismael Zambada, for instance, cannot have been pleased by Guzmán's new media stardom—and were ready to have their old cuate back behind bars where it would be harder for him to mess up their business.
The deal the cartel made with the Mexican government probably went something like this: Please get the guy out of our hair, but whatever you do, don't kill him. He's made us a lot of money and we still have strong ties with his family and with loyalists.
The only people not shot in the raid that recaptured Guzmán were the guy himself and his right-hand man, and if you think that's a coincidence, I have a tunnel you can bid on.
|Kate del Castillo. Getty|
Del Castillo had been vocal in her praise of Guzmán, declaring on social media that she believed in Guzmán more than she believed in governments and urging him to become a modern-day Robin Hood, in which case he would "become a hero of heroes."
She added, "Let's traffic in love, you know how." Guzmán was definitely interested in trafficking in love.
Look, he wasn't the first guy to get taken in by a beautiful, ambitious actress who wanted to further her career, and he won't be the last, but the sorry fact is that the most powerful drug lord in the world, a man who had created a multibillion-dollar empire, got suckered by a pretty face.
You almost feel bad for Guzmán. His texts to del Castillo are pathetic: "I really want to meet you and become good friends. You are the best thing in the world." He asks her to visit him. "Have faith that you'll be comfortable. I'll watch you more than I do my own eyes."
Del Castillo plays him. "I'm so moved you say you'll look after me. No one ever has."
Guzmán worked with his lawyer to facilitate communications with del Castillo, insisting that the attorney get her a pink BlackBerry, which, tragically, the company didn't make.
Then del Castillo told the lawyer she wanted to bring Sean Penn along.
Guzmán didn't know who Penn was, but he wasn't going to let that get in the way. "Have her bring the actor. If she needs to bring more people, bring them. As she wishes."
Their meeting took place on October 2, 2015. A few days later, in a move that Mexican authorities later said was "helped" by the del Castillo-Penn visit but was more likely a result of American cell-phone intercepts, the Mexican marines raided the ranch where Guzmán fled with his two personal chefs. Marine snipers have said that they had him in their sights but were ordered not to fire, as our hero had a little girl in his arms as a shield.
On January 8, 2016, he was captured in Los Mochis. All the authorities had to do was follow the monkey.
That's right. It wasn't a Hollywood actor that did Chapo Guzmán in. It wasn't even a sexy soap-opera star that got him recaptured a year after his "dramatic," "daring" (read: "bullshit") "escape" from a maximum-security (I'd hate to see a minimum-security) Mexican prison. It was a monkey.
The story goes that Guzmán asked for his twin daughters' pet monkey, Boots, to be sent to the not-so-safe house where he was hiding, and the Mexican authorities had a line on the little bastard. So Mexican and American intelligence were already monitoring Guzmán when Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo made their farcical pilgrimage, after which Guzmán, always the optimist, reportedly visited Tijuana for erectile-dysfunction surgery. (You can't make this shit up. I try, but it's futile.)
Whether it was the monkey or the soap-opera star or American cell-phone intercepts, the deal was in place, and the Mexican marines went in shooting. A few hours later you had one of the most powerful men in the world popping up out of a sewer lid in the middle of a street like some sort of narco whack-a-mole game. Two cops picked him up and then realized—holy shit—what they had on their hands and were so scared they actually turned him over rather than negotiate a Get out of Jail for a Million card.
In the Middle East, we traded the devil we knew for the devils we didn't. In Mexico, the devils we know will be replaced by a multiplicity of devils we'll never know. The ability to hide production (unlike marijuana or poppy fields) and the anonymity of communicating on social media will create anarchy. The era of the cartel might be coming to an end.
Where does this leave Guzmán? If you didn't know the things he's done, it would be tempting to view him as a tragic figure, a Gabriel García Márquez character living out his twilight years in the shadows of his lost hopes.
In Mexico, the devils we know will be replaced by a multiplicity of devils we'll never know.
He's been moved to a prison in Juárez, Cefereso #9, a facility known for its violence, in a city where he has many enemies. Mexico's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has cleared the way for his extradition to the United States, but there are still many court challenges to go. Some Mexican legal experts I spoke to said that it will be at least two years, if it happens at all. I doubt that he'll ever be extradited, but you never know. He might push for it now rather than face the threat of an assisted suicide in a Mexican cell.
The prison now has dogs taste Guzmán's food in case it's been poisoned (personally, I wouldn't sacrifice Spot to save Guzmán), and two "elite" guards with GoPro cameras on their helmets watch him 24/7.
So Guzmán is behind bars, it's over, and we won. Just like we won when Hussein literally reached the end of his rope.
The Los Angeles Times estimates that two thirds of Mexican drug lords have been either killed or imprisoned. And what's the result? Drugs are more plentiful, more potent, and cheaper than ever. Deaths from overdoses are at an all-time high. Violence in Mexico, once declining, is starting to rise again. Just last week, I looked at photographs of the bodies of four people stuffed into a car trunk in Tijuana. The bodies showed signs of torture.
Gang violence is on the rise in every major American city, most notably Chicago and New York, and the cowardly lions in Congress will do exactly shit about either the drugs or the guns that fuel and enable the killings and deaths—more than ISIS ever dreamed of.
Seems like old times. There will be more phone calls and more overdoses. Someone will replace El Chapo, just as he replaced his predecessors. My bet's on El Mencho, but it really doesn't matter. That's the lesson we seem to have to learn over and over and over again, world without end, amen. Guzmán was right: "If there was no consumption, there would be no sales." I'm always amazed that progressive young millennials will picket a grocery chain for not buying fair-trade coffee but will go home and do drugs that are brought to them by the killers, torturers, and sadists of the cartels.
An entire economy is based on drug prohibition and punishment, something to the tune of $50 billion a year, more than double the estimated $22 billion we spend on heroin.
That's a lot of money. There will inevitably be another Guzmán, but he'll be a distraction, too. Don't follow the monkey. Follow the money.