How Did El Chapo Guzman Become a Billionaire Drug Lord?

Joaquin Guzman (aka El Chapo, which is slang for "Shorty" at 5' 5'' tall) 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 and was estimated to import 25% of all illegal drugs in the U.S. through Mexico. 

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 Florence "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.

Key Takeaways

  • Joaquin Guzman, also known as "El Chapo," was one of the most powerful drug lords of all time with an estimated net worth of $3 billion.
  • At the height of its power, the Sinaloa cartel under Guzman's leadership was estimated to import 25% of all illegal drugs in the U.S. through Mexico through elaborate long-range tunnels and bulk currency shipments.
  • El Chapo was captured three times and is now serving a life sentence in a supermax prison in Colorado.

Understanding El Chapo Guzman

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, who often suffered physical abuse from his father and entered the drug trade because of him. 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.

Ultimately, El Chapo was able to rise through the ranks, smuggling more drugs into the U.S. and Europe than any other drug kingpin through tunnels and bulk currency shipments. Officials from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration famously called El Chapo the "godfather of the drug world."

Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman is serving a prison sentence of life plus 30 years.

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.

Still, El Chapo became a beloved figure in his hometown of Sinaloa by building infrastructure that benefited those in his hometown. It was said that El Chapo was a micro-manager, who knew every detail of his prison operation and did so using elaborate tunnel systems, notably from Tijuana across the border into San Diego. However, Sinaloa Cartel's operations didn't stop at the U.S.-Mexico border; it also had operations in the Philippines as a shipment point for drugs smuggled into the U.S.

El Chapo's Arrest Record

Guzman was first arrested in Guatemala in 1993 for murder, drug trafficking, and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. However, he escaped from the maximum-security prison in 2001 after he bribed prison security guards to open his cell, disable the video cameras, and smuggle him out in a laundry cart.

In the years after his escape, El Chapo quickly re-established himself in the Sinaloa Cartel once again, becoming "the world’s #1 fugitive and a Forbes-listed billionaire," according to the U.S. Department of State.

In 2014, El Chapo was arrested again but made headlines in July 2015 when he escaped the maximum-security prison in Altiplano Federal Prison in Mexico through a mile-long tunnel in the shower area of his jail cell. After being on the run for half a year, he was re-captured after a shoot-out with Mexican authorities in 2016 and finally extradited to the U.S. He is currently serving a life sentence in Florence, Colorado.

El Chapo's Net Worth FAQs

What Is El Chapo Guzman’s Net Worth?

El Chapo's net worth is estimated at $3 billion in 2020.

Who Was Richer El Chapo or Pablo Escobar?

Pablo Escobar is considered the richest gangster of all time, with an estimated net worth of $30 billion.

Who Captured El Chapo Guzman?

El Chapo was captured by Mexican authorities in 2016, following a shoot-out near the coast in his home state of Sinaloa. Later, he was extradited to the U.S. to serve out his life sentence.

How Many Years Did El Chapo Guzman Get?

El Chapo got a life sentence on a number of criminal charges as the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Where Is El Chapo Now?

El Chapo is currently serving a life sentence at the ADX "Supermax" prison in Florence, Colorado.

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.