At the age of fifteen, Joaquín Guzmán, along with four of his cousins, started a marijuana plantation and distribution business in Sinaloa, Mexico’s drug capital. That venture was highly successful and allowed him to take care of his family, despite being an adolescent. Fast forward to today, Guzmán, who is better known as ‘El Chapo’ (which is a Spanish slang for ‘Shorty’), is one of the wealthiest and most powerful drug kingpins in the world. In 2009, Forbes estimated that the drug lord's personal net worth was $1 billion, while The Independent, a well-established British media house, named El Chapo the 48th most powerful person on the planet. According to some estimates, El Chapo’s drug empire realizes annual revenues in excess of $3 billion.
In Summer 2015, Guzmán caught international attention after successfully escaping from a federal maximum security prison for the second time. He was eventually recaptured by Mexican marines in early 2016. However, while in hiding, El Chapo conducted an interview with actor Sean Penn for Rolling Stone. During the conversation he mentioned, ‘‘I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana than anybody else in the world.’’ In that same interview, El Chapo also revealed that he had, ‘‘a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.’’ The United States State Department reports that Guzmán’s drug cartel smuggles several tons of narcotics from South America into Mexico and subsequently distributes them to the America, Canada, Europe and even as far as Asia and Australia.
Below is the story of how Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, a boy from a small Mexican town grew up to be one of the world’s richest and most powerful criminals.
A Drug Baron Is Born
While the place of Guzmán’s birth is well documented, his actual date of birth is not. He was born in a rural town called La Tuna, which happens to be located in the Mexican State of Sinaloa. On the other hand, there seems to be a little disagreement on when exactly the drug kingpin was born. While some sources claim that he was born on Christmas, 1954 others say that he was born three years later on April 4, 1957. Like the majority of people who lived in La Tuna, El Chapo’s father, Emilio Guzmán Bustillos, worked on a cattle ranch. As a way to earn extra money, Emilio Guzmán grew and sold opium poppy, a plant which serves as the source for many drugs including heroin. In fact, he was the one who introduced his son, Joaquín Guzmán, to the world of narcotics. After dropping out of school in the third grade, El Chapo, and his brothers helped their father with cultivating his opium poppy farm. (For related reading, see: 8 of the Richest Gangsters of All Time.)
An Early Start in Organized Crime
Despite running a very successful drug business on the side, El Chapo’s father was not able to substantially provide for his family. This was primarily because he would spend the majority of his earnings from the business on things such as prostitutes and alcohol. His father’s bad judgment often frustrated the young El Chapo, and it ultimately led him to start his own drug operations. When Guzmán was fifteen-years-old, he partnered with four of his cousins to plant and sell marijuana. This venture allowed for El Chapo to give his family the desperate financial assistance that his father was not able to provide. It also served as a learning experience for Guzmán and his cousins, who all later headed powerful cartels in Mexico. As of February 2016, three of these cousins were incarcerated for drug-related crimes while one of them, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, was killed in December 2009 by the Mexican Navy in an intense shootout. At the time of his passing, Leyva was named one of Mexico’s 24 most wanted drug traffickers.
Following a few years of running his marijuana farm, El Chapo, who was in his 20s at the time, decided to leave his hometown to further his career in organized crime. (For more, see: What Methods Are Used To Launder Money.)
Inheriting Valuable Turf
Shortly after leaving La Tuna, Guzmán joined the Guadalajara Cartel, which was at the time a leading drug trafficking organization in Mexico founded by Miguel Ángel Felix Gallardo. In his initial years of involvement with the cartel, El Chapo worked in the background of the operations. There he supervised the logistics and shipment of drugs from Colombia to Mexico.
In 1985, Gallardo, the head of the Guadalajara cartel, was arrested for murdering an American agent from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). As a result of this, the members of the cartels agreed to dissolve the organization and divide the ownership of the territories it controlled. Guzmán’s share of the split was the Sinaloa and Pacific Coast area, which he turned into the Sinaloa Cartel. (For more, see: ABC’s Madoff Miniseries Explore His Charm, Smarm.)
Growing a Drug Empire
Since founding the Sinaloa Cartel in 1989, El Chapo has managed to grow the organization into the world’s largest drug syndicate. One of the main reasons why the cartel was able to grow to its current size is because Guzmán and his team were successful in distributing its drugs in the United States without encountering a lot of police interference. According to Biography.com, some of Guzmán’s smuggling techniques included, "...a series of air-conditioned tunnels that ran under the Mexican-U.S. border, [and]...hiding cocaine powder inside fire extinguishers and cans that were labeled 'chili peppers.'" The underground tunnels used by the Sinaloa Cartel were million dollar structures that were built by engineers and other professionals who were laid off from their jobs.
Violence has also played a critical role in securing the turf owned by Guzmán’s organization. A 2009 Time article on El Chapo revealed that the members of his cartel are "suspected of committing more than 1,000 murders across Mexico."(See also: Why Does Fighting Money Laundering Reduce Overall Crime?)
The Bottom Line
Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán has certainly come a long way from his humble beginnings as a child in Sinaloa. With only a third grade education, El Chapo managed to build a multinational criminal empire which made him one of the world’s wealthiest persons. Guzmán’s career in the world of illegal drugs started during his teenage years when he and his cousins started a marijuana plantation of their own. He later worked as an apprentice for a cartel that was owned by a powerful Mexican drug lord, before eventually inheriting a portion of that cartel’s turf. El Chapo was able to expand his organization’s reach throughout the world thanks to creative drug smuggling methods and a series of violent crimes and large bribes. As a result of this, Guzmán was able to amass a personal fortune of more than $1 billion.