While negotiations over a border wall remain at an impasse in Washington, a case is unfolding in a federal district courtroom in Brooklyn that casts President Trump’s ambition in a new light. Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán stands accused of running Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, and trafficking billions of dollars’ worth of drugs into the United States. Having escaped from prison twice, Chapo – the nickname means ‘shorty’ – was arrested in Sinaloa in 2016 and extradited to the US a year later. The trial has been a masterclass in the logistics of running an illegal international organisation – in addition to its operations in the Americas, Sinaloa has a presence in more than a dozen countries in Africa and throughout Europe and Asia – and has offered a detailed insight into the way the US-Mexico border has determined the structure of one of the world’s most lucrative businesses.
In the 1980s, Chapo commissioned a sixty-metre underground tunnel connecting his lawyer’s house in the Mexican town of Agua Prieta to a cartel warehouse in Douglas, Arizona. Three decades later, he escaped from a maximum security prison through a tunnel that led to the shower in his cell. (According to one of his associates, the excavation was so loud that other inmates complained.) In 2011, only a few days after a sophisticated fence was completed along part of the Mexico-Arizona border, Sinaloa operatives showed up with a catapult to lob bales of marijuana into the US. When the US Coast Guard began seizing the go-fast boats that the cartel had been using, it shifted to tuna-fishing boats, which could travel further into international waters to avoid detection. After the authorities began intercepting those, Chapo invested in semi-submersibles: in early December, jurors were shown footage of a 2008 Coast Guard operation in which a Sinaloa submarine carrying 5896 kilos of cocaine was captured off the coast of Guatemala. The cartel has also taken to the skies. In 2016, El Universal reported that the organisation owned more planes than Aeroméxico, the country’s biggest airline.
And yet the US government estimates that more than 80 per cent of the drugs that cross the border do so through legal checkpoints. The cartel has smuggled cocaine in cans of pickled jalapeños, frozen shark carcasses and fake bananas, and is increasingly responsible for the influx of methamphetamine into the US. Earlier this month, Vincente Zambada, the son of Sinaloa’s other top leader, Mayo Zambada, spent two days on the witness stand describing how the cartel would buy as many as 15 cars at a time and install hidden compartments in them that could hold up to thirty kilos of cocaine. (This has been a preferred tactic for traffickers for more than a century – during Prohibition, border patrol agents would rock cars back and forth to listen for sloshing liquor.) Sinaloa would hire people who lived on one side of the border but worked legally on the other, and have them use the cars to make multiple cross-border trips a day. In his 2011 book El Narco, Ioan Grillo writes that the cartels would offer a flat rate of $1000 to drive a kilo of marijuana into the US, and more for heroin, cocaine or meth. For residents of border towns, the task can be completed in three hours, and it pays the equivalent of a month’s work at a factory in Juárez.
The cars would return to Mexico packed with money, and the drug shipments would be held in safehouses in the US until new drivers came to collect them in trucks. (One of Sinaloa’s US couriers, an 87-year-old lily farmer arrested in 2011, is the subject of Clint Eastwood’s recent movie The Mule.) The drugs often went on to Chicago, where operations were run by the Flores brothers, Mexican-American identical twins. Their collaboration with the US government has been critical in the case against Chapo. ‘A kilogram of cocaine may have a wholesale value of $18,000 in Guadalajara, Mexico,’ Margarito Flores said in a grand jury statement, ‘but that same kilogram would have a wholesale market value of $30,000 in Chicago.’ Between 2006 and 2008, the brothers were selling roughly $60 million of cocaine every month.
Edgar Ivan Galván, a US citizen and hapless low-level narco who also testified recently, said he met ‘El Jaguar’, a notoriously violent hitman, in a Mexican nightclub. Jaguar convinced Galván to act as a testaferro, a frontman who could use his status as a US citizen to rent safehouses for the cartel in El Paso. According to Galván, in addition to transporting drugs and eliminating enemies – Jaguar owned a soundproofed, white-tiled garage with a drain in the floor – his boss also bribed Mexican customs officials so he could smuggle guns into Mexico. These weapons, purchased with Sinaloa money, were used to wage war against La Linea, a rival cartel in Ciudad Juárez. Since the early 1990s, assault rifles and other weapons have flowed into Mexico at an alarming rate. A report last year found that 253,000 guns enter Mexico every year from the US; 70 per cent of all guns in Mexico have US origins.
The jury didn’t hear much about Mexico’s gun problem. After a back-and-forth between the defence and prosecution, the judge ruled that descriptions of violence would be kept to a minimum, and that Chapo’s lawyers would not be allowed to discuss the scandal surrounding Operation Fast and Furious, a US government initiative in which officials allowed shops in Arizona to sell firearms to suspected smugglers in the hope they could follow their trail to cartel leaders. Of the more than two thousand guns sold under the programme between 2006 and 2011, fewer than half have been recovered, and more than 150 deaths have been linked to Fast and Furious weapons, some involving Sinaloa members.
For Sinaloa, free movement across the border relies on a variety of factors, including widespread corruption (Zambada testified that the organisation had a budget of $1 million a month to pay off police and government workers, not including bonuses and payments to high-ranking officials), and an elaborate network of contacts in the US. Much of the system dates back to the 1980s, when leaders of Tijuana’s Arellano Félix cartel ‘created a mystique around trafficking that lured the children of Tijuana’s wealthy elite into their employ as “narco-juniors”,’ as Nathan Jones writes in Mexico’s Illicit Drug Networks and the State Reaction (2016). ‘They recruited attractive, affluent youths with dual citizenship because they could cross the border with minimal inspection.’ Today, many narco-juniors tend to flaunt their wealth on social media with photos of pet panthers and stacks of cash.
The public image of the narco as a sexy renegade with a bottomless bank account persists, and is perpetuated by pop culture and narcocorridos – pro-narco folk songs – that glorify their escapades. The genre dates back to the early 20th century, but enjoyed a surge in popularity when Mexico’s drug trade escalated in the 1990s. Popular narcocorrido themes include odes to AK-47s, conspicuous drug consumption, and the prowess of cartel leaders. Chapo’s second escape from prison was immortalised in a ballad by the Sinaloa band Colmillo Norteño: ‘Little Chapo ran away/Nobody realised, nobody saw/The whole country is on alert/But we still have one question:/Did he disappear through a tunnel/Or just walk out the door?’
Despite a crackdown on the drug trade on both sides of the border over the past decade and a half, there’s little evidence that either supply or demand has been hampered. In 2012, after six years of President Felipe Calderon’s all-out war on the cartels, a UN study found that the street price of a gram of cocaine in the United States was the same as it had been in 2002. Cartels continue to find avenues across the border because there is a robust American market for drugs, and money always finds a way. It’s also worth bearing in mind that much of the crime that Trump blames on Latin American migrants – drug trafficking, gang violence – has its origins in the US. The Mara Salvatrucha gang formed in Los Angeles; mass opium cultivation began in California before moving down to Mexico. As for the idea that criminals are clamouring to enter, most cartel leaders want to stay as far away from the border as possible. As Pablo Escobar once remarked, a grave in Colombia will always be preferable to a prison cell in the US.