The Geek Squad Guy
June 2009–February 2010
It came in off the street one day—a tip, a lead, a rumor—whatever you cared to call it, it was one of the strangest things they had heard in their careers. Chapo Guzmán, the world-famous drug lord, had hired a young IT guy and the kid had built him a sophisticated system of high-end cell phones and secret servers, all of it ingeniously encrypted. The unconfirmed report—perhaps that was the best way to describe it—had arrived that Friday in June 2009 when a tipster walked into the lobby of the FBI’s field division office in New York. After his story had been vetted downstairs, it made its way up seven flights of stairs and landed with a curious thud among the crowded cubicles of C-23, the Latin American drug squad. For more than thirty years, the elite team of agents and their bosses had hunted some of the drug trade’s biggest criminals, and while tall tales of their antics circulated constantly through its squad room near the courts in Lower Manhattan, no one in the unit knew what to make of this one. The tipster’s account seemed credible enough but it was sorely lacking details: the only facts he had offered on the young technician were a first name—Christian—and that he was from Medellín, Colombia. All sorts of kooks spouting all sorts of nonsense showed up all the time at FBI facilities, claiming they had inside information on the Kennedy killing or knew someone who knew someone who knew where Jimmy Hoffa was. In what were still the early days of Internet telephony, it seemed a bit far-fetched that a twentysomething hacker had reached a deal with the world’s most wanted fugitive and furnished him in hiding with a private form of Skype. As alluring as it sounded, it was just the sort of thing that would probably turn out to be a myth.
In the middle of a drug war, chasing myths was not enough to send C-23 into the field: reality was keeping the unit busy on its own. Three years after Mexico had launched a crusade against its brutal cartel kingpins, the country had erupted into incomparable violence, and much of the chaos had rolled downhill into American investigative files. Just that winter, a psychopath who called himself the Stewmaker had been caught near Tijuana after having boiled three hundred bodies down to renderings in caustic vats of acid. Two weeks later, a retired Mexican general was murdered in Cancún, his kneecaps shattered and his corpse propped up behind the steering wheel of a pickup truck abandoned on a highway. Since late 2006, the country’s seven drug clans had all been at war with one another or the government—or sometimes both at once—and ten thousand people had already lost their lives. C-23 and other US law enforcement agencies pitched in when they could, opening cases and offering intelligence to their counterparts in Mexico. But in the past several months, conditions at the border had only gotten worse and had metastasized from an ordinary security emergency into something that resembled a full-scale insurrection. From the American point of view, the Sisyphean struggle to end the bloodshed—and to stem the flow of drugs heading north—seemed increasingly impossible despite the constant seizures, the federal indictments and the helicopter gunships sent as foreign aid.
[ Return to the review of “El Jefe.” ]
In this target-rich environment, Chapo Guzmán was an interesting case. While he was neither the wealthiest nor the most sadistic trafficker in Mexico, he was by a matter of degree the most illustrious. His famous alias, “El Chapo”—often rendered “Shorty” but more accurately a reference to his squat, stocky frame—was globally familiar, with a recognition level that rivaled that of movie stars and presidents. Not since Pablo Escobar had ruled over Colombia had la pista secreta—the secret path of the narcotics business—seen a figure who was both a major criminal and a mass celebrity. For nearly twenty years, Guzmán had been at the center of the drug trade, involved in some of its best-known capers and disasters. In 1993, in his earliest brush with fame, he was sent to jail in Mexico for the murder of a Roman Catholic cardinal, Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, whose daylight killing at the Guadalajara airport introduced the world to the threat presented by Mexican cartels. Eight years later, in a move that earned him full folkloric status, Guzmán had escaped from prison, slipping out in a laundry cart after paying off his jailers.
Ever since, he had been on the run, moving back and forth among a half-dozen hideouts deep in the Sierra Madre mountains, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Though he lived like an outlaw, he was treated like a king—loved by some, feared by many and inarguably one of the most powerful men in Mexico. A single word from him from one of his mountain dens could set in motion tractor-trailers in Nogales, planes in Cartagena and merchant freighters in Colón. At fifty-two—an improbable age in an industry that did not promote longevity—Guzmán had reached the height of his career, running his business freely and warring against his rivals, all while playing cat and mouse with those among the Mexican authorities who weren’t on his payroll. While the American government was after him as well, a contrarian consensus had emerged in parts of Washington that at least he was contained in the Sierras, where he was spending exorbitant sums on his security and could not engage in the same bloody havoc that emergent mafias, like the Zetas or La Familia Michoacán, had recently been wreaking in the lowlands. It was also the case that no one—not the FBI, the DEA, nor their cousins in the intelligence community—had ever mounted a successful capture operation in the rugged region he had fled to. In the past two years alone, a panoply of American agencies had helped arrest Otto Herrera, Guzmán’s connection to Colombia’s cartels; Juan Carlos Ramírez, one of his top suppliers; and Jesus “El Rey” Zambada, the brother of “El Mayo” Zambada, his most important partner. The heir to Guzmán’s throne—Mayo’s son, Vicente—was in jail in Mexico City, and Pedro and Margarito Flores, the twin brothers who had handled much of his American distribution, were about to start recording him for US drug officials. By mid-2009, Guzmán himself was already under indictment in San Diego and Tucson and would soon face further charges in Brooklyn and Chicago. But after all of this—countless hours of investigative and prosecutorial effort—he had never spent a single day in an American court of law.