MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Mexico’s most notorious kingpin who escaped two maximum-security jails, shipped countless tonnes of drugs around the world and became one of the world´s most-wanted fugitives, was extradited to the United States on Thursday.
Mexico’s struggle with drug cartels and its chief adversary, Guzman, was a tapestry of corruption, violent deaths and billions of dollars in smuggled contraband - a business that put the kingpin onto the Forbes world’s billionaires list.
But El Chapo, or Shorty, was the drug trade’s shining light, an almost mythical figure whose audacious real-life exploits captured the world’s imagination and turned him into a folk hero for many in Mexico, despite the thousands of people killed by his brutal Sinaloa cartel.
In January 2016, Guzman was finally caught in his native northwestern state of Sinaloa. Six months earlier, he had humiliated Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto by escaping from prison through a mile-long tunnel dug straight into his cell.
It was the second time in his career the 59-year-old capo had escaped a federal Mexican jail and he spent the following months awaiting extradition to the United States.
Just days after his capture, “Chapo‘s” larger-than-life reputation was sealed when U.S. movie star Sean Penn published a lengthy account of an interview he conducted with the drug lord - a meeting the Mexican government said was “essential” to his eventual capture a few months later.
“I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats,” Penn said Guzman told him during their discussion at the drug lord’s mountain hideout.
On Thursday, Mexico´s government finally extradited Chapo, on the eve of Donald Trump´s inauguration as U.S. president, from a prison in Ciudad Juarez on the U.S. border.
Mexico has been riled by Trump´s vows to build a massive border wall and force Mexicans to pay for it. But Pena Nieto´s administration has sought to keep Trump on side, first inviting him down to visit and then reaching out to his transition team.
Top Mexican officials are set to meet with Trump´s incoming administration in Washington next week, and the timing of the extradition appeared to be a gesture to both sides of the U.S. partisan divide.
Guzman’s legendary reputation in the Mexican underworld began to take shape in 2001, when he staged his first jailbreak, bribing guards in a prison in western Mexico, before going on to dominate drug trafficking along much of the Rio Grande.
However, many in towns and villages across Mexico remember Guzman better for his squads of assassins who committed thousands of murders, kidnappings and decapitations.
Violence crept up in the 2000-2006 rule of president Vicente Fox, and his National Action Party (PAN) successor Felipe Calderon, staked his reputation on bringing the cartels to heel.
Instead, the killings spiraled, claiming nearly 70,000 lives under Calderon while Guzman’s fame grew. In February 2013, Chicago dubbed him its first Public Enemy No.1 since Al Capone.
Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel went on smuggling hundreds of tons of cocaine, marijuana, and crystal meth across Mexico’s 2,000 mile border with the United States. Indictments allege Guzman’s narcotics were sold from New England all the way to the Pacific.
Guzman’s capture in February 2014 was a big victory for Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - making his flight the following year all the more embarrassing.
“THE FACE OF CORRUPTION”
Security experts concede the 5 foot 6 inch gangster was exceptional at what he did, managing to outmaneuver, outfight or outbribe his rivals to stay at the top of the bloody drug trade for over a decade.
“El Chapo Guzman is the most flagrant, the most brutal, and the starkest face of the corruption in Mexico,” said Anabel Hernandez, author of ‘Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers’.
Rising through the ranks of the drug world, Guzman carefully observed his mentors’ tactics, their mistakes and where to forge the alliances that kept him one step ahead of the law for years.
Mexican soldiers and U.S. agents came close to Guzman on several occasions but his layers of body guards and spies always tipped him off before they stormed his safe houses.
Guzman was born in La Tuna, a village in the Sierra Madre mountains in Sinaloa state where smugglers have been growing opium and marijuana since the early twentieth century.
He ascended in the 1980s under the tutelage of Sinaloan kingpin Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, alias “The Boss of Bosses,” who pioneered cocaine smuggling routes into the United States.
The aspiring capo came to prominence in 1993 when assassins who shot dead Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas claimed they had been gunning for Guzman but got the wrong target.
Two weeks later, police arrested him in Guatemala and extradited him to Mexico. Guzman used money to ease his eight year prison stay, smuggling in lovers, prostitutes and Viagra, according to accounts published in the Mexican media.
After escaping, his fame spread to the United States, and Guzman expanded his turf by sending in squads of assassins with names such as “Los Negros,” “The Ghosts” and “The Zeta Killers.”
Agents say Guzman hid near his childhood home in the Sierra Madre mountains but rumors abounded of him visiting expensive restaurants with his entourage and paying for all the diners.
In 2007, Guzman married an 18-year-old beauty queen in a village in Durango state in an ostentatious ceremony.
The archbishop of Durango subsequently caused a media storm when he said that “everyone, except the authorities,” knew Guzman was living in the state. Guzman’s bride gave birth to twins in a Los Angeles hospital in 2011.
Between 2004 and 2013, his gangs fought in all major Mexican cities on the U.S. border, turning Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo into some of the most dangerous places on the planet.
In one attack in Nuevo Laredo in April 2013, 14 bodies were left mutilated on the street under a note that was signed “El Chapo,” and read “Don’t forget that I am your real daddy.”
Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel often clashed with the Zetas, a gang founded by former Mexican soldiers that created paramilitary death squads. The Sinaloans fought fire with fire, arming their troops with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns.
Guzman also turned on his own allies. He waged one of his bloodiest campaigns against childhood friend and longtime business partner Arturo Beltran Leyva, alias “The Beard.”
In 2008 hitmen hired by Beltran Leyva murdered Guzman’s son Edgar, a 22-year-old university student, outside a shopping mall in Sinaloan state capital Culiacan. Guzman reportedly left 50,000 flowers at his son’s grave, then returned to war.
When Beltran Leyva was finally shot dead by Mexican marines in 2009, a head was dumped on his grave.
In the 1990s, Guzman had become infamous for hiding seven tons of cocaine in cans of chili peppers. In the 2000s, indictments say Guzman’s crew took drugs in tractor trailers to major U.S. cities including Phoenix, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Forbes put the kingpin’s wealth at $1 billion, though investigators say it is impossible to know exactly how much he was worth. Mexican prosecutors say Guzman used his money to buy off politicians, police chiefs, soldiers and judges.
With reporting by Mexico City bureau; Editing by Simon Gardner