Illustrations: Mauricio Rodríguez / Univision Noticias
l. "You will be carrying money, of course. And our weapons."
“Hey, buddy. I want you to know something,” Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán-Loera said to the veteran helicopter pilot who he nicknamed ‘Tinieblo’ (Twilight). The pilot had just arrived in Sinaloa, Mexico from Miami, to begin flying for Guzmán-Loera.
“I’m all ears, Mr. Guzmán,” answered the pilot. He knew his new boss was no saint, but didn't know much else.
“Do you recognize me?” inquired Guzmán.
“I’m afraid I don’t, sir,” answered the pilot.
“I’m no little angel," Guzmán said. "But later I’ll tell you the story of a cardinal of the Catholic Church they assassinated, mistaking him for me."
“Sure, sir. Sounds like an interesting story,” the pilot replied.
“Around here, you will be called ‘Tinieblo’ and everybody had better get it right, from now on,” Guzmán ordered 14 men armed with AK-47 assault rifles.
“Fine, Mr. Guzmán. No problem,” responded the pilot. His career had involved working for major airline companies. But they had since been hijacked by the Sinaloa Cartel.
“But it’s not the cardinal I want you to know about,” added the boss.
“I’m listening, sir,” prompted the pilot.
“I want you to know that you work only for me, for my kids, for my wife and for my beloved Mother. Aside from us, the helicopter I will give you will never be used to carry any castaways or contraband. You will be carrying money, of course. And our weapons.”
The pilot had been contacted by a private aviation businessman who looked him up in Miami and offered him a job in Mexico, with a monthly wage of $25,000.
“Are you interested?” the businessman asked.
It was Friday.
“I was out of work, the bank was about to take away my house, and I accepted,” says the pilot.
In a Miami coffee shop, the businessman gave him $15,000 cash and a first-class ticket to fly to Mexico City. The pilot provided a photograph, which was immediately sent to the people who were to pick him up at Benito Juárez Airport, in Mexico City, so they could recognize him when he arrived.
That weekend, he went to Fort Lauderdale to clear his head and watch the McDonald’s Air & Sea Show, a gigantic display of military gear for flying and sailing the seas. The pilot, with a distinguished military background, thought it was “the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life.”
Three days later, he left for his new job.
When he came out of the Benito Juárez Airport in Mexico City, two men were waiting for him at the exit with the photograph of his face, enlarged. The businessman who contacted him had sent it to them from Miami. They both shook his hand warmly.
“Neither called me by my name,” the pilot recalls.
“We are going to get your license. From now on, your name is Carlos Sánchez,” one of the two men told him.
“You’re getting it right now?” asked the pilot.
“Right away,” he answered, and they walked to the government office, where his driver’s license was ready in under an hour, with his photograph and his new name.
“Now, go to the Crystal Grand Reforma Hotel and tomorrow you will be leaving for Culiacán," one of the men told him, and they said goodbye.
Culiacán (a town of 700,000 inhabitants) is the capital of the State of Sinaloa.
“I landed at noon in the International Federal Airport of Culiacán, which they also call the Bachigualato International Airport. A very friendly fellow was waiting for me there, Hernando Cabiedes,” says the pilot.
“Hey, guy, we want you to feel at home here,” Cabiedes assured him with a warm handshake.
“Thank you for the friendly welcome,” answered the pilot.
“We’re going to take you to Navolato, a little town with pretty beaches,” announced Cabiedes, who was wearing ostrich-leather boots, typical of that part of Mexico: pointy and high on the calves. He was wearing tight Levi’s jeans and a three-inch belt with a silver buckle almost the size of a CD.
Navolato is a town in Sinaloa with about 30,000 inhabitants. There he stayed at a two-story farm manor, with five deluxe bedrooms; no luxuries or comforts were left out, but it was all thrown together in poor taste. In a nearby barn, there was a Cessna 150 single-engine plane, and a yacht being repaired, hoisted up on jacks.
There was also a zoo, where most of the room and the best treatment was for a corpulent jaguar, “the ones that, in South America,” according to Tinieblo, “they call ‘butterfly tigers.”
Half of the area was for an ostrich-raising operation. There were hundreds.
In another part of the farm were El Chapo’s best 60 horses. About 15 of them were dancing, in synchronized movement like human dancers, on a sandy yard.
The house, Mediterranean style, white, had an impeccably maintained swimming poor, and something that we would later learn was characteristic and customary for El Chapo Guzmán in all of his houses: a “palapa” or straw-thatched wooden hut, invariably built and located to take all kinds of people for secret conversations, which happens every day.
“Since I first got to this farm in Navolato, I always associated it with the Pablo Escobar’s ‘Nápoles’ manor, where I went many times, or the ‘Repelón’ farm, in the Caribbean region of Colombia, owned by drug traffickers, partners of Escobar’s, Juan David, Fabio and Jorge Luis Ochoa-Vázquez. I saw others in the same style in Central America”, the pilot tells us.
The seventh day he was there, the routine changed when two white, armored, double-cab pickup trucks arrived. The “Boss” was in the truck in front, flanked by four riflemen escorting him, and there were another ten in the truck behind. They were all armed with gleaming “
cuernoechivo” AK-47s. “That distinguished them from the rifles of guerrilla and paramilitary fighters in Colombia or El Salvador whose weapons showed the wear and tear of war,” explained the pilot.
Before the Boss arrived, Cabiedes was especially careful to teach him the proper, mandatory way to greet him in typical Mexican style.
“You shake hands, then you hug him and then you shake hands again. That’s the way we do here, but especially with the Boss,” he taught him.
Guzmán arrived with a dark blue shirt, Levi’s blue jeans brought from California, Adidas tennis shoes and a baseball cap, also blue. “I never saw him wear ostrich cowboy boots like the others," the polit said.
“He came in the afternoon. I didn’t know which of the men who got out was my new employer, but it wasn’t hard to assume that it was the man next to the driver of the front pickup. I had never seen him, even in photos.”
Guzmán walked toward the pilot with his arms wide open and the pilot was sure to shake his hand, then hug him and then shake hands again. He glanced at Cabiedes out of the corner of his eyes and saw him approve, with a smile and his right fist in a thumb’s up for him.
“Let’s go to the ‘palapa’, pilot,” ordered Guzmán.
“So, how do you feel? You are the pilot that the guys in Mexico City sent me,” exclaimed Guzmán, and offered him a chair.
“Welcome. They selected you carefully.”
“Tinieblo, what kind of aircraft do we need? Tell me what you fly the best, and I’ll buy you one.”
“No, no, no. Call me 'tio' (uncle). Always,” asked Guzmán.
“Fine, Uncle. If you can bring a Ranger 407, it would be very good. It is the perfect helicopter for the service that you need. It has seven seats, including the pilot and copilot; it is quite versatile, because it can land practically anywhere and costs about four million dollars, depending on what ‘gadgets’ you want to include on it. It is produced by Bell Helicopter Textron, in the United States. It is often used for police work and as an air ambulance. It’s a beauty!”
“Well, Tinieblo, I’ll buy me one of those birds for you. Write the data on a piece of paper, and I’ll have that copter bought for you,” instructed Guzmán.
“If you have a notebook, I’ll put it all down for you, Uncle.”
“I’ll find you one, but I want you to know something, right here, between the two of us.”
“I am ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, and I’m quite proud of my name, but I don’t want you to call me that, Tinieblo”, he warned. “I was in the Big Bridge prison, in Jalisco, for eight years. They caught me in Guatemala, but I escaped and now all my people have to be more trustworthy than ever. That’s why I have you here – I don’t want any damned pilot that knows the people around here, and could tattle on me.”
“I had heard your name, Uncle,” remembered the pilot.
“Everyone says that I’m the head of the Sinaloa Cartel. But there is no such thing. My group is called the Blood Alliance. I have gone to South America many times: Argentina, Bolivia, Peru… especially to Medellín, which has the best whores! I’m going back there, and you’re going to see a lot of important people from Colombia and South America in general, coming here to visit: businesspersons, partners, attorneys and a journalist who does me favors and asks me for money all the time, recommended by Carlos Castaño, the paramilitary who was a friend of Pablo Escobar’s, whom I admire so much, and had the honor to meet. Later I will keep telling you more, so stay here while I get the new chopper.”
They left the “palapa” and said goodbye: handshake, hug and handshake.
II. Breaking in 'the Boss's new bird."
Three weeks after he got to the farm in Navolato, Mexico, to work as El Chapo Guzmán’s personal pilot, and got renamed ‘Tinieblo’, he was informed that the four-rotor Bell Ranger 407 helicopter that he had recommended for them to purchase had arrived, directly from the United States, so he could fulfill his commitment, to exclusively transport the head of the Sinaloa Cartel and his family.
“I got the news from El Durango, who would appear only to handle El Chapo’s affairs when they called for international banking or judicial and governmental procedures,” said the aviator.
“See you tomorrow, and you and I will go to Mexico City to pick up your copter. You have to bring your American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) license.”
“My license is up to date, but I don’t know if it will be wise to use it on a flight plan in Mexico,” he warned.
“No, but it is good for you to bring it. We will make the plan otherwise, and we have a guy from Mexico City to talk with the control towers during the flight so no one will notice or ask about anything strange.”
They drove on the highway to Culiacán and from there they took a regular airline flight to the Benito Juárez International Airport, in Mexico City. Neither of the two took any luggage, but just got off and went to a private hangar, near the offices of the Attorney-General of the Republic, where two US pilots had left the new helicopter, purchased from the factory by El Chapo for his personal service.
“I never knew, or asked, how much it had cost, or which of his companies bought it for El Chapo. But some time later, I learned that the bank draft to pay for the Bell Helicopter was received from a legal company managed by the Colombian clan of the Cifuentes-Villa brothers, from Medellín, responsible for laundering most of the Sinaloa Cartel’s money through a multi-national network discovered some time later by the US Government.”
“Anyway, there was the helicopter: ready to break in, brand-new. It had barely 12 flight hours and came with all the bells and whistles,” recalls Tinieblo.
“I’ll go see if the flight plan is ready so we can leave,” said El Durango as he went off to get it.
“Go ahead, and meanwhile I’ll check the helicopter,” answered the pilot and then opened up the boxes of gifts sent by the Bell Helicopter company: jackets for the two crew members, gloves, caps, goggles and overalls. They each put one on.
El Durango, a tall fellow with a goatee, came back an hour later with a copilot, food and beverages for their flight, and a folder of documents with an XB registration from Mexico, which had just been assigned to the Ranger 407, which had just reached the country. It also had an authorized flight plan for the non-existent Mexican pilot, who was obviously not Tinieblo.
“Here we go, buddy!” shouted El Durango while the copilot, who looked indigenous and never gave his name, spoke on the radio at the Benito Juárez control tower to take off.
“We are parked on the Attorney General’s platform. Requesting authorization to start our engines, to fly to Colima. Requesting authorization to start the engines,” said the copilot with his international aeronautical jargon, with a heavy Mexico City accent.
“Authorized to start the turbine and taxi by the Alpha toward the helipad,” answered the tower.
“We are in position on the helipad, ready to lift off,” replied the copilot.
“Lift off and notify us from the air,” ordered the tower.
“Roger, I’ll call from the air,” announced the pilot.
“Roger,” confirmed the tower.
“We are in the air, requesting to fly visually direct to Colima,” asked the copilot.
“Authorized to proceed under visual conditions.”
The four-rotor Ranger 407 flew level, for the first time piloted by Tinieblo, to the position authorized by the control tower and ascended.
“It was like a Persian carpet flying on its first day out,” said the pilot. “We went a long way over the vast expanse of Mexico City, going westward, toward Colima and then, departing from the flight plan, we continued to Acapulco, where we landed in some aeronautical workshops where they attached labels to the helicopter, along the sides, announcing a non-existent company ‘Minerales de México.’” There, they also painted the legal registration number and, the pilot himself – when it had dried – made two strategic changes with black tape: He changed an F into an E, and a C into an O.
When night fell, they locked the Ranger into a hangar and went to celebrate at a discotheque from the “Mister Frogs” chain, along the Escénica highway leading to the airport.
“That day, El Durango paid me $12,500 cash for my first two weeks of work and I spent $6,000 with the whores who turned up that night, including a tall Colombian, 23 years old, brunette, green eyes, and a few centimeters taller than me.”
The copilot danced with all the women, drank himself into a stupor and collapsed on a chair, but never mentioned his name. With the hangover from their bender, in which the three men spent nearly $15,000, they got up early to fly in a burning sun, “which hurt my eyes, even though I was wearing the thickest goggles I had,” he confessed.
Hugging the Pacific Coast of Mexico flew without any flight plan to the old city of Mazatlán, with half a million inhabitants, where they landed to fuel up and continued to the Navolato farm, which the pilot had been calling “the zoo,” while living there since he came to Mexico.
They landed next to the swimming pool at “the Zoo,” and while circling to land and let people know they were coming, they stampeded an immense herd of ostriches.
“Wow, it’s brand-new!” exclaimed a worker next to the house, and came up to touch the burgundy-color helicopter.
“Hey, don’t get your fingerprints on the paint!” shouted El Durango angrily.
But everyone all ran over to see “the Boss’s new bird.”
An hour after landing, El Durango got a call on one of the seven cell phones he carried around in his office briefcase, everywhere he went, even to the bathroom. The ring tone, playing the “La Cucaracha” melody, announced that El Chapo was calling.
“We have to go to the western Sierra Madre mountains, the Boss wants to see the chopper,” ordered El Durango as he hung up.
“Let’s go,” answered El Tinieblo.
“I haven’t told you this before, buddy, but I’ll tell you now: from now on, you have to give every place we go a new name.”
“Whatever you say, Durango”. “I’m already calling this ranch ‘the Zoo’, and I’ll register it on the GPS that way.”
“Only you, me, and the Boss are going to know those names.”
“So, let’s do these coordinates,” he ordered and reached him a sheet of paper with the data penciled in. “That place, before the Boss came back, we were calling the Díaz Mateus Lagoon.”
“Ready, so I’ll call it Matelosdías.” (Making time pass)
“Great, let’s go, buddy.”
It took them 20 minutes to fly to Matelosdías, a hideaway in a deep canyon in the western Sierra Madre mountains, a range covering the whole western side of Mexico (from Jalisco to Sonora) and the southwestern United States. In that region, no one could ever find El Chapo. From the air, it is strikingly similar to the Andes mountains.
“It was not easy to maneuver in, because the approach to the heliport had massive tree branches that had not been pruned back for years,” said the pilot.
The 14 rifle-bearing escorts from El Chapo’s personal guard emerged from the dust cloud raised by the Ranger 407, and the Boss rushed out, half-dressed, to see his new toy. He was accompanied by a smiling whore, with an oriental appearance, a t-shirt on backwards, and pajama pants.
The rotors were still turning when El Chapo opened the door to get in, and two of his men got dangerously close to the tail rotor, still spinning. El Durango saved them from getting beheaded by shouting and pushing them away.
“Hey, Tinieblo, the copter is great – it smells new!” he exclaimed as he caressed the seats with the palms of his hands.
“Uncle, this copter is a jewel, an ‘alhaja’, as they say in Ecuador, where I was working a while ago,” said the pilot.
“Get out and let’s go to the ‘palapa,’ Tinieblo. I have to talk to you.”
El Chapo asked for refreshments and ordered that, when he finished meeting with me, they should bring all the pistols and AK-47s that they had in Matelosdías, to give me one of each. “For your peace of mind,," he said.
“Tinieblo, I need you to change the names for every place I go.”
“Durango already told me, Uncle.”
“These are hard times, buddy. “The guachos (military) and the gabachos (US authorities), are after me, night and day. You can’t talk with anyone here except my people, and you will not be back to Miami for a long time. Sometimes you can go to Culiacán with Cabiedes or Durango, to call your family. No one here knows your name, and you’re not going to tell them. And it’s not good for you to know their names, either.”
“In Miami, Uncle, they didn’t tell me that I would have to stay for a long time, and I miss my family, sincerely,” objected the pilot, disappointedly.
“Listen, Tinieblo, for now, we are your family, and we already care about you. And your family will be fine. I’m just asking you to make a sacrifice. You’re not kidnapped, don’t get worried.”
“Can you give me six months here and a few weeks to go see my family, the way the oil companies did?”
“That won’t fly, Tinieblo, but we can see what we can do. Another thing I want to tell you is that you’re never going to see my business operations, or have anything to do with the military part. If we ever get close, I’m gonna cover your head, so you can’t see anything, because if they ever catch you, and I hope the Virgin protects you, even if they torture you, even if they tear your arms off, you won’t be able to tell them anything.”
“I figured it was best not to complain anymore to El Chapo about how shattered I was by the terms he had just laid down for me,” admitted the pilot.
“Now, let’s see your new names, so we can relax right now,” suggested the head of the Sinaloa Cartel and unfolded a map with the coordinates marked.
“Okay, I’ll make the notes here, and then I’ll put them into the helicopter’s GPS.”
In less than an hour, they had the new labels for the kingpin’s eleven main hideaways: “Salsipuedes” (get out if you can), “Tuyasabes” (you already know), “El Cocinero” (the cook), “La Verga” (the dick), “Matelosdías” (killing time), “El Zoológico” (the zoo), “la Escalera” (the staircase), “Los Micos” (the monkeys), “La Cuchara” (the spoon), “El Tequila” (tequila) and “El Borracho” (the drunk). Each name came out of some circumstance related with the place. For example, “El Borracho”, was because El Chapo told me he had killed a good friend who, one moonlit night, had gotten drunk and shot off every bullet in his rifle.
III. The man with the golden AK-47
“Tell Doblecero (double zero) to come right now!” shouted El Chapo when he had finished talking with the pilot.
“Here I am, sir,” announced Doblecero, who was in charge of security. He had an immense wooden crate, and had two assistant guards behind him, with nearly 15 AK-47 rifles.
“I am going to give you one of each, Tinieblo. Pick them out.”
“No, thanks, Uncle, but I don’t need weapons. I’m the only one here who has no enemies.”
“Impossible, Tinieblo, around here the only ones with no weapons are the whores,” insisted El Chapo.
“I ended up choosing a Browning GP-35 9-millimeter pistol and a regular AK-47,” said the pilot.
“So you feel better, about it, I’ll give you a smaller rifle. A special gift for you. Because we’re friends, buddy.”
El Chapo left to get dressed, asking me to wait for him and soon his squadron of riflemen began running around in chaos when they saw a ’guachos’ helicopter coming, very high.
The aircraft went north, out of sight, and I had a chance to give them some instructions: “Next time, don’t run, because that will get the copter pilots’ attention and they will come down on us, thinking there must be a laboratory here, or a dead body, or a fugitive … On the contrary, wave to them.”
El Chapo came back all neated up, with a baseball cap, a blue silk shirt and Adidas sneakers. He left a trail in his wake of Santos by Cartier, one of his favorite perfumes. He had the oriental-looking whore by the hand, who he had spent the last four days with, and had his AK-47 slung over his shoulder – completely gold-plated. The butt of his gun, also golden, holstered at his hip, had an inscription with Colombian emeralds: ‘El Chapo.’
He got in the copilot’s seat, and asked me to fly to the Zoo, and from there the whore took a pickup truck to the nearby town of Navolato to catch a plane back to the capital.
At the Zoo’s “palapa”, El Chapo had a closed-door meeting for hours with a group of people from the Attorney-General’s office from Mexico City, and a couple of scared-looking attorneys.
At the same farm, some months later, they met with a man they said was a Colombian general, but dressed in casual sportswear. Behind his back, El Chapo referred to him as El Muelón (toothy).
“The man’s accent was undoubtedly Colombian,” Tinieblo recalls. “That’s all I know about him.”
About five o’clock in the afternoon, an old Bell two-rotor copter landed – the organization had four of them – with the same labeling on the sides as ours: “Minerales de México.” Without shutting off the engines, they let a blonde woman off, tall, busty and with impeccable teeth. Gorgeous. She had two suitcases. El Chapo, half a head shorter than her, ran to greet her with a long kiss on the lips, we got her up in the copter and flew away with her.
“Let’s go to La Cuchara, Tinieblo,” he ordered, while he put the woman’s seat-belt on for her, as a pretext to caress her breasts. She responded with a forced expression of affection.
“Did you know that Tinieblo, just like me, has also been to your country?”
“Pleased to meet you, Tinieblo,” said the woman with her accent from Cali, Colombia. “What are you doing around here?”
“The same as you”, answered the pilot with a naughty grin.
During the flight, El Chapo had fun reading press clippings from all over the country about his escape from the Puente Grande Federal Penitentiary on 19 January 2001, which the delegates from the Attorney General’s office in Mexico City had brought him when they met that afternoon.
He didn’t miss a detail of the news about his breakout and the ceaseless hunt for him, organized mainly by the United States, using the tactics that enabled them to kill Pablo Escobar, an idol of his, on a rooftop in Medellín, on December 1, 1993.
It seemed that El Chapo knew the secret sources and how carefully each news item about him had been written. Sometimes it looked like they contained encoded messages to warn him. He forgot all about the whore from Cali, flying next to him, until he had explored all the articles they had clipped for him.
“Stinking damned journalists!” he exclaimed under his breath when he read some of the headlines and smiled absent-mindedly but nervously.
IV. Breaking out 'Arturito'
“My Mother is quite religious and she likes to go on all the pilgrimages,” ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán abruptly told his personal pilot.
“She must be quite devout,” he answered, just to say something.
While they were flying, they spoke with each other using the internal intercoms of the Bell Ranger 407 helicopter to avoid being drowned out by the engine’s roar.
“And who do you suppose my Mom prays for all the time?”
“For you, Uncle?”
“No, for Arturito, ‘El Pollo’ (the Chicken) my brother”, answered El Chapo, morosely, with his gold-plated AK-47 slung across the front. That morning, he was wearing a bullet-proof vest that he said he had bought from a Colombian supplier in the capital. As he spoke, he gazed nostalgically out the window on his side.
“Poor thing,” said the pilot, who had often flown with her as his sole passenger, to visit her son, and to follow her Hail Marys as she prayed for the helicopter not to crash.
“There is nothing harsher than seeing a mother suffer. It leaves scars on your soul."
“This helicopter is really powerful, isn’t it, Tinieblo?”
“It depends on what you want it for. Its specialty is its versatility.”
“Listen up: we’re gonna bust Arturito out of the Altiplano Prison with this damned copter. I know you can do it. You’re the tops, thank God.”
“It sounds like a tough job, Uncle.”
“We’ll put a gigantic speaker on this copter – they’re finding it for me in Mexico City right now – and we’ll hang an armored steel box on it, so Arturito can get in. From the speaker, we’ll shout that they’d better not shoot, because there’s a bomb in the prison, that they all have to keep still, because another helicopter has to come deactivate it.”
“If they even reach us with one rifle shot, we’ll crash, Uncle. That plan doesn’t sound like it would work.”
“Don’t say that. I can arrange for them to remove the hammers from the rifles that the penitentiary guards have that day, before they are issued to them. That way, if they shoot, nothing happens. I have my contacts – with enough money, you can make dogs dance the tango, Tinieblo.”
“But I imagine that, in a maximum-security prison like that one, there must be countless defense systems – if one fails, the next one kicks in.”
“God damn it, Tinieblo! I can fix that if I pay enough! They will let Arturito out to exercise in the sun at 11 a.m., and that is when we will arrive, announcing over the loudspeaker: ‘Warning! Don’t shoot, because we have a bomb in the prison!’ Next, we let down the armored box. ‘El Pollo’, who will have been briefed, will get in, and we will go give my Mother a present”, explained El Chapo with his eyes wider open than ever before. “What do you say, buddy?”
“I have never done anything like that, Uncle, and the truth is, I don’t think I ever could.”
“Every day, my Mother prays to the Holy Mother for that miracle, bro.”
The conversation lagged, because they got to the “Los Micos” mountain refuge and the pilot had to concentrate on his approach to land. When they touched down, El Chapo strode right over, frowning, to the site’s “palapa” to talk to the man he respected most of all, and sometimes even seemed to fear: Ismael ‘El Mayo’ Zambada-García.
V. $80 million missing
The pilot recalled a thorny issue: in Chimbote, in Peru’s Amazon jungle, a fortune had been seized, $80 million cash that the Tijuana Cartel and El Mayo’s cartel were supposed to have paid El Chapo in these last few days.
The money was being transported by Miguel Ángel Morales-Morales, whom El Mayo trusted. El Mayo had been the early Sinaloa Cartel leader. The original bosses of Sinaloa were now under El Chapo’s command, brothers Ramón and Benjamín Arellano-Félix.
Ramón, one of the FBI’s most-wanted fugitive in 2002, tried to murder El Mayo in Mazatlán (Sinaloa), during their traditional Carnival Sunday festival, but El Mayo got the Ministry Police of Sinaloa to murder the entire band of hit men charged with this crime.
Another of the Arellano-Félix brothers, Francisco Rafael, was murdered during a family gathering in Baja California by a clown who pulled a revolver out of one of his big pockets, shot the drug trafficker in the head and chest at the end of the clowning he was hired for, and got away.
When El Chapo met with El Mayo in the “palapa” at Los Micos, it was easy to guess from outside that the air was thick enough to cut with a machete.
El Chapo insisted that the money was lost because Hebert Salina-Suárez, El Mayo’s contact in Bogotá, who managed to get away from the police raid in Chimbote, slipped up.
Except for the men at the meeting there, no one ever learned how they settled their $80 million problem, which could have ended up in a sudden shoot-out.
El Chapo, solemn and silent, took his gold-plated AK-47 and his best bullet-proof vest, just in case he had a duel that day, face-to-face, with El Mayo.
The two drug traffickers said goodbye when they were finished talking it over, with the best expression of friendship in front of their men: they shook hands, hugged and then shook again. El Mayo even made a further gesture of trust, asking to be dropped at his own ranch in his colleague’s Bell Ranger.
With a show of even greater courtesy and friendship, El Chapo invited him to ride in the copilot’s seat, and opened the door for him to get in.
For the first 10 minutes of the flight, no one spoke, until El Mayo, who was wearing a bullet-proof vest even bigger than El Chapo’s and an AK-47 against his chest, began to knock on the main flight lever, the “cyclic stick,” with the stock of his rifle.
The copilot’s position has that lever. It is an active duplicate of the one that the pilot maneuvers between his legs during flight. When either one is moved, both move.
“Please, sir, don’t tap the lever. Every time you touch it, the copter dips forward, and we could go into a nose-dive,” the pilot asked El Mayo, who was some years older than El Chapo.
“I will do whatever I jolly well feel like, you damned meddler!”
“Excuse me, but every time you tap the lever with the stock of your AK-47, you endanger the lives of all of us, even your own.”
“Listen up, you stinking little bastard, this copter is mine, too, and I do whatever I want to with it!” answered El Mayo, who was wearing a broad-brimmed cowboy hat and ostrich-hide boots.
“I’m just asking you a favor, for the good of all of us,” insisted the pilot, and the gangster agreed to hold onto his rifle and carry it on his lap until their final destination, where he got out without saying goodbye.
As the Bell Ranger took back off, El Chapo ordered: “Let’s go to Tuyasabes, Tinieblo.
You know something, Tinieblo?”
“My colleagues in Medellín are clever guys. I need to have some tough men, like the ones that Rodríguez-Gacha or Pablo Escobar had: who stick up for their boss. They were really tough bastards, like Leonidas Vargas – have you heard of him? He was a real butcher. That’s why I like the people there, Tinieblo. There they have respect, because they respect their bosses, buddy,” he said – still angry about the meeting at which he had expected they would shoot it out with El Mayo.
“How many times have you gone to Colombia, Uncle? I have also flown there, and around Peru. In almost all of South America.”
“Many times. I began going in my Lear jets. I would land in Turbo; at the “Los Cedrous” airport, in Apartado; at “Las Brujas”, in Corozal… I would get off at the ends of the landing strips, to get into these armored Hummers, and they took me to the ranches of Salvatore Mancuso, an Italian, and others. When I would go to Medellín, I would stay in Montecasino, with Vicente and Carlos Castaño. Carlos is the younger brother, quite a crazy guy, my friend. They also lodged me at the Las Lomas Hotel, which belongs to the Ochoa brothers, who are partners with Pablo Escobar. One of these days, let’s fly to Colombia and you’ll see the whores we bring back from there – they’re very affectionate: they call you ‘little Daddy’,” said El Chapo.
This was the kind of rambling he would give in to after the times that other kingpins got his goat, like that afternoon with El Mayo.
He often told the pilot with nostalgia that, because of a mistake by “that damned El Mayo,” they had lost a Boeing 707 airplane that was captured by the DEA at the Bogotá airport. The plane had arrived loaded with a cargo of money and had to return with several tons of cocaine, but the big plane ended up rotting in the military zone known as CATAM (Military Transport Air Command) until it was junked and sold piecemeal to tribes of gypsies who melted it down to make it into home-made pots, pans and cauldrons to sell in poor neighborhoods.
“Many Colombian pilots knew where that plane came from, and told how they watched it become dilapidated by the elements for many years,” said Tinieblo.
El Chapo spoke with enthusiasm about the times he met with Pablo Escobar, his idol, and about how sorry he was about the way Escobar had died. He remembered that much of the cocaine that came in was from a place called Barrancominas, Colombia, so he said he was grateful to the FARC guerrillas for letting them produce it.
He knew that, at Pablo Escobar’s Los Pájaros farm, “near the town of Caucasia,” was where they packed the main cocaine cargos that came to Mexico. There, with a legal air strip, shipments were readied by Gildardo Peláez, alias ‘La Yuca’ and a captain from the Colombian police, named Castañeda.
Most shipments would have the drugs in one-kilo packages. They were generally marked with the face of a redskin Indian, a scorpion and a Star of David. Each symbol indicated which supplier the drugs were from.
They landed in Tuyasabes by dusk, using only the helicopter’s outside lights.
El Chapo jumped out and ordered: “Tell Chabela to come right now!” She was the cook there, about 20 years old, rough but pretty.
A whore that was to be there for that night, from Acapulco, was waiting for him in Navolato. He couldn’t pick her up because of the long meeting that afternoon with El Mayo.
He took Chabela into his bedroom and shut the door and, as always, posted two of his riflemen at the door, to stay on watch all night, with two guard dogs as well.
It was exceptional for El Chapo to spend the night without a woman, and the one he spent the least time with was his own wife. He swore to them all that they were the only one.
“In each of El Chapo’s hideaways, I had three changes of clothing, personal toiletries, and hiding-places to keep the cash money from my salary,” said the pilot.
The next day, El Chapo had breakfast at 10 in the morning and then asked Tinieblo to come over with him to the “palapa” for a talk.
“Look, buddy, I have a gift from you that should be in a museum, just gorgeous, one of the jewels I love the best,” he was beside himself this morning, and pulled out a leather portfolio.
“Thank you, Uncle, what is it?”
“You have to know one thing,” he warned him, and gave him the portfolio.
Tinieblo opened it: it was a
Nazi Luger pistol with an extra-long barrel. In impeccable condition, even though it was 60 years old. It came with two magazines and 100 nine-millimeter bullets.
You should know that I am giving you this museum jewel. It’s for you, buddy.”
The pilot stood up to thank El Chapo with an embrace.
“And now, what do you think about what I told you about, to break Arturito out of prison?”
“Uncle, I sincerely think it looks really difficult, but let’s keep figuring out how to make it possible.”
“Tinieblo, if you break out Arturito, I’ll give you the helicopter. That same day, she’s all yours, and I’ll give you a million greenbacks, too. Just think about how my Mother is suffering,” he pleaded.
They never got Arturo out of prison, and he was murdered in there some time later, although El Chapo never stopped insisting, but never forced the pilot.
One afternoon, when it had been raining hard since the night before, and it was impossible to fly anywhere, the pilot decided to ask El Chapo to tell him a story he had promised him some time ago.
“Uncle, once you told me they killed a cardinal because they thought he was you.”
“Yes, Tinieblo. It was in 1993. In May, the month of the Virgin Mary. His name was Juan José Posadas-Ocampo, a monsignor, a blessed soul. He was the archbishop of Guadalajara and he was on the way to the airport to pick up the Apostolic Nuncio ambassador, to conduct the mass on the day for Cristóbal de Magallanes and his martyred companions who had been sainted.”
“Were you with the cardinal?”
“No, Tinieblo, some bastards from Jalisco wanted to kill me, and they thought that I had come to the airport disguised as a cardinal. They were waiting for me, and when Monsignor Posadas got out of the car, they shot him over and over," El Chapo said.
“You were saved by a miracle, Uncle.” the pilot replied.
“Yes. But there was such a scandal that it caused trouble for me. The Attorney General said that the bullets were for me, the goddamned President, Salinas de Gortari, didn’t let them autopsy the monsignor, and that made things worse. Pope John Paul II got mixed up in that mess, and all the newspapers blamed me, Tinieblo.”
VII. ‘Better a grave in Colombia to a prison cell in the United States.'
When the rain subsided, they flew to La Tuna, a little town in Badiraguato (Sinaloa), where El Chapo was born on 25 December 1954. He was going to visit his Mother, and the whole town, all 5,000 inhabitants, found out. They had to land in the midst of a throng. Many had never seen him in person and, in an outbreak of collective hysteria, they lunged at him, to touch him. They carried him on their shoulders, and if he had been an inch or two higher, the spinning rotors of the helicopter would have decapitated him.
El Chapo would give people houses and lend his helicopters to take people to hospitals in emergencies. Very few of them found out about his tremendously evil actions.
“I realized that El Chapo’s riflemen had done something very serious whenever they turned up in certain places, filthy, exhausted and with blood-spattered clothes,” said the pilot.
Frequently, the mobster spent the whole night listening to the latest feats they dedicated to him, and learning them by heart. He clearly had primitive ambitions for greatness.
“I can say that I felt deep empathy with him, even though, for all the years I worked at his side, he never let me visit my family,” says Tinieblo, who eventually quit.
“Some day, I can speak up with more details, and show my face. I can’t do this now, because I have to be careful. I have always suspected that the pilot who worked for El Chapo before me was murdered. He is unscrupulous and that is why lately I have been thinking that, if now that he is in prison, they make a deal with him to inform on El Mayo Zambada in exchange for some benefit, he will do it, and we will see him out of prison once again,” explained the pilot.
He never forgot Pablo Escobar’s motto – he was his idol, as he was the idol of all Mexican drug dealers. Sometimes he recited it, mainly when he was nervous, and he would spout it out to break lengthy silences for reflection: " Better a grave in Colombia to a prison cell in the United States."
El Chapo felt Escobar died according to his principles, the pilot reflected.