One of the few photos that exist of El Chapo as shown at the Almoya prison after his arrest.
By GERARDO REYES
El Chapo Guzman was the most wanted man in Mexico in June of 1993. The authorities considered him a suspect in the death of Cardinal Juan Jose Posadas Ocampo. He was so unknown that the Wanted posters carried a drawing that resembled more a caricature than a portrait.
At 36, Guzman knew he had serious problems, but he underestimated the abilities of the Mexican government, which was under international pressure to show results.
He took his time pulling together his escape gang, which included his lover, Maria del Rocio del Villar Becerra, and waited several days for his lawyer, Juan Calas, to get him a fake passport.
The plan was to escape toward Guatemala and continue later to El Salvador, where he would have to send off a shipment of cocaine to the U.S. and buy assault rifles, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
Univision reconstructed these moments in the life of Guzman with the help of two key people in the persecution of the fugitive: the current president of Guatemala, Otto Perez, who was then chief of intelligence services of that country, and the Mexican deputy attorney at the time, Jorge Carrillo Olea.
Perez had never told this story. For 20 years he’d kept it hidden, in part for fear of retaliation by Guzman, as stated in an interview with Univision.Today’s president was then captain. He had spent a year and a half as director of intelligence.
According to Perez, an official who worked for a mobile intelligence unit had infiltrated one of Guzman’s groups established in Tecun Uman, a town on the Mexican border. The official had accepted $30,000 and a pickup truck in exchange for the safe passage of drug shipments.
“The best intelligence operation occurs when there’s somebody inside,” explained Perez. “This was advanced, it took time to gain their confidence. We should have moved him, but we left him there precisely so that he could advance the gathering of intelligence about what was happening,” he added (see interview in the section Testimonies).
Otto Pérez while he was in the military. He was the chief intelligence officer of his country when El Chapo was arrested.
A few days after the cardinal’s death, the infiltrated official began to hear that something big would be happening across the border. At first he thought it had to do with goods. “Two days before, it had to have been the 7th or the 8th, we began to get information that very possibly it could be El Chapo himself coming here to Guatemala,” explained Perez.
Mexican authorities closely followed Guzman’s steps, taking advantage of Guzman's systematic carelessness as they moved south, according to Carrillo, who coordinated the operation.
On his way to Guatemala, Guzman “was leaving a trail, like a wounded animal” and ordered his companions to destroy the Wanted posters that appeared along the way, commented then-Mexican Attorney General Jorge Carpizo, now deceased.
Others maintain that it was Amado Carrillo, the “Señor de los Cielos,” who provided details of Guzman’s location. Among them, the lawyer for the archdiocese of Guadalajara, Jose Antonio Ortega, depended on the version from the lawyer of the Señor de los Cielos.
“That’s not right, because it would detract from much of the operation’s merits. I would have to say that it is a very cynical lie,” responded former deputy attorney Carrillo Olea.
In Guatemala, with the information from an infiltrated official that was sent from Mexico, Perez’s people were prepared to meet the caravan. Guzman spent the night in a hotel in the center of the city. The next day intelligence services learned that his plan was to leave Guatemala to El Salvador.
Perez decided that it was the right moment. He didn’t want to leave the country, but he was reluctant to corner him in an urban area. He feared thatthe drug trafficker’s gunmen would react violently. So they allowed the caravan to take the highway to El Salvador. About 15 miles from the capital, the military set up a post.
Guzman and his men offered no resistance. “His reaction was calm, that is, he did not appear afraid or nervous, nor did he look violent, “ recalls Perez, who exchanged a glance with the fugitive without exchanging a word.
“Did he offer a bribe?” this reporter asks Perez. “Yes, he offered money, he offered information, he offered a series of things. He mentioned millions of dollars, I’m talking at least one million, two million dollars,” added Perez.
There is one detail that separates Carrillo Olea’s version from the president’s. The former asserted that El Chapo crossed into El Salvador and was arrested upon return. Perez denied that version in his interview with Univision.
Following the arrest, the major concern of Guatemalan intelligence services was the rush to clearly identify Guzman. After several hours of exchanges with Mexico, they had no doubt, and at nightfall began the delivery of El Chapo over land crossing border bridge at Talisman.
The way in which the military transported the fugitive was not necessarily the most secure. Tied at the feet and hands in the back of a pickup truck, out in the open, Guzman was handed over by the military at the Mexican border.
FROM HIS CELL, GUZMAN TURNED PRISON INTO A FIVE-STAR HOTEL ROOM VIA BRIBES AND INTIMIDATION.
Aboard a military plane transporting him to Mexico, Guzman sent another warning that he was not defeated: he handed over to a soldier the names of Mexican and Guatemalan officials, police, and military that had received bribes from the drug trafficker. The soldier prepared a document that disappeared several years later.
Presented at a press conference in Mexico, Guzman took off his cap and explained who he was. The Mexican media reproduced this dialogue with a reporter who interrogated him.
“Hey, Chapo, is it true you’re the king of cocaine?”
“I don’t dedicate myself to that.”
“To what do you dedicate yourself?”
“What do you plant?”
El Chapo Guzman was able to transfer himself to the prison at Puente Grande, Jalisco, in November of 1995. He could no longer stand the strict discipline of the previous prison, where it had been forbidden for inmates to speak among themselves and receive food from outside. From his cell, Guzman turned prison into a five-star hotel room via bribes and intimidation.
The prison was like a party, recalls journalist Anabel Hernandez, who has written extensively about El Chapo. “He was allowed prostitutes. He was Viagra. And because El Chapo took Viagra and cocaine, they not only allowed him that, they permitted him to have sexual access to the female inmates there,” said Hernandez.
One of them was Zulema Hernandez, condemned for kidnapping and robbery in the women’s annex. Univision was able to interview her mother, Salome Hernandez: “My daughter Zulema said El Chapo was very sweet and that she was in love with him.”
As in almost all of his relationships with women, Guzman became obsessed with Zulema and he didn’t hold back in his letters. “Although I am staying a few days more, I am moved by your transfer,” he wrote. “Precious one, if before your transfer we could see each other, I want to give you a sweet kiss and hold you in my arms.”
El Chapo’s phrase about staying a few more days was not a metaphor. Guzman was planning his escape and he didn’t mind boasting. Even his lover’s mother knew it. She recalls that Zulema said Guzman was going to leave.
On January 19, 2001, El Chapo escaped from prison. Various versions were woven around how he did it. The most cinematic was that he escaped in a laundry cart hidden among the sheets and covered by a mattress, but that version has become a myth. Investigators and witnesses assert that Guzman left walking through the main doors with the complicity of numerous public officials.
After El Chapo’s escape, the daughter of President Perez had an attempt on her life that today the head of state suspects could’ve been the work of the drug trafficker. .
In the Puente Grande prison, El Chapo met Zulema Hernandez and expressed his obsession with her in his letters to her.
A rash of sorrows and successes awaited El Chapo in his freedom. His son Edgar was killed in Culiacan at the entrance to a commercial center. A DEA informant commented to Univision that the death was the result of a chain of errors.
Edgar was in the company of a young man who was ordered by Guzman to be executed because money problems with Guzman's mother. Guzman did not know his son was with him. A monument that is tended day and night marks the place of the assassination that changed Guzman’s life. In a remote cemetery in Badiraguato, to which few journalists have had access, the drug trafficker ordered the additional construction of a beautiful mausoleum.
The losses of his son, and earlier of his brother, who was assassinated in his cell, and the violent death of Zulema, apparently at the hands of his rivals the Zetas, did not soften Guzman.
Cutting off the heads of his enemies became one of his preferred methods of sending warnings. In the records of the Mexican judicial, it became common to find bed sheets explaining the motives for the massacres, always signed: “Sincerely, El Chapo."