Joaquin Guzman (aka El Chapo, which is slang for "Shorty") was once one of the wealthiest and most powerful drug kingpins in the world. In 2009, Forbes estimated his net worth at $1 billion. The Sinaloa cartel, which he led, reportedly raked in an excess of $3 billion in revenue annually. In 2019, a U.S. district court convicted Guzman on drug and murder conspiracy charges and sentenced him to life in prison plus 30 years. He is currently serving that sentence at the ADX "Supermax" prison in Colorado.
Guzman drew international attention in July 2015 after escaping from a maximum-security prison through a tunnel in the shower area of his jail cell. It was his second prison break. That year, the Independent named him the 48th most powerful person in the world.
While in hiding, Guzman gave an interview to actor Sean Penn for Rolling Stone. He said: "I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks, and boats." The U.S. Department of State said his smuggling operations stretched from South America into Mexico, with subsequent distribution to the U.S. and Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Below is the story of how Guzman, who was born into poverty in a tiny Mexican town, became one of the world's richest and most powerful criminals.
Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman is serving a prison sentence of life plus 30 years.
An Early Start in Organized Crime
Joaquin Guzman was born on April 4, 1957, in La Tuna, Sinaloa. His father was ostensibly a cattle rancher, though locals who remember him say he grew poppy for opium production, just like everyone else in town. The younger Guzman dropped out of school in the third grade and sold oranges to help support the family. As an older boy, Guzman along with his brothers helped their father with the poppy harvest. They would hike for hours to the family patch to harvest their crop.
The elder Guzman, however, often spent the proceeds on women and alcohol, leaving the family to fend for themselves. This frustrated the younger Guzman. At 15, he teamed up with his cousins to plant and sell marijuana. It was around this time that Guzman took the nickname El Chapo. In the 1970s, Guzman used his marijuana business to establish a connection with Hector Luis Palma Salazar, a rising drug lord. In the 1980s, Guzman went to work for Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the top drug trafficker in Mexico at that time, first as his driver and then later handling his logistics.
Inheriting Valuable Turf
Gallardo led the Guadalajara Cartel, which controlled the transshipment of narcotics from South America to the U.S. via Mexico. Guzman worked in the background, overseeing shipments. In 1989, Mexico arrested Gallardo for the murder of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique Camarena Salazar. With Gallardo out of the picture, members of the cartel agreed to divvy up the organization. Guzman took control of what became the Sinaloa Cartel, which had distribution corridors into California and Arizona.
Members of the cartel led by Guzman are believed responsible for more than 1,000 murders across Mexico.
Growing a Drug Empire
Guzman grew his distribution empire through two innovations. He built long-range air-conditioned tunnels under the border into the U.S. He also broke down shipments into smaller parcels to help avoid detection and minimize potential losses. He hid drugs inside cans labeled "chili peppers."
Violence played a role in enforcing discipline and loyalty. Guzman did not tolerate late shipments and reportedly would shoot in the head any smuggler who failed to arrive on time. A 2009 Time article reported that members of his cartel were responsible for more than 1,000 murders across Mexico.
The Bottom Line
Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman came a long way from humble beginnings as a child in Sinaloa. With barely an education, he went from a small-time marijuana farmer to running a multinational smuggling operation. He made powerful connections, placing himself in a position to seize greater opportunities as they arose. He used ingenuity to expand his empire, amassing a personal fortune estimated to be worth $1 billion. Yet despite his wealth, he was unable to outrun the long arm of the law and will likely live out the remainder of his years in confinement.