The Dirty Secret of El Chapo’s Downfall

It’s the trial of the century, right?

The satisfying third act in the dramatic rise-and-fall story of a celebrated Mob boss who became one of the world’s richest men, a Robin Hood who gave to the poor, a modern-day Houdini who escaped from not one but two maximum-security prisons.

And it’s great show business with a full cast of characters: a compelling antihero, high-level drug traffickers who “flipped,” a sexy mistress, a beautiful young wife in the gallery.

It has titillating stories of luxury jets, private zoos, a naked escape (with said mistress) through an elaborate tunnel, and wretched excesses of wealth that would bring a blush to the faces of the most shameless “stars” of reality TV.

Yes, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the infamous jefe of the all-powerful Sinaloa cartel—“the godfather of the drug world,” as one D.E.A. official styled him—is being brought to justice in a trial that will stand as a major victory in the War on Drugs.

As of this writing, the prosecution and defense have finished their closing statements and we don’t know how it will end. Maybe one of the jurors will have been compromised and Guzmán will be acquitted. Most likely he’ll be convicted and sent to prison for the rest of his life.

Whatever the result, in the big picture …

It doesn’t matter.

The Guzmán trial will do nothing to stem the flow of drugs into the United States.

Don’t get me wrong. Guzmán’s conviction for trafficking literally tons of drugs into the United States would be a good thing. He’s not Robin Hood. He’s a killer responsible for untold suffering—surely far more than he’s charged with—and if he spends the rest of his life in prison it will be something like justice.

But his capture has done nothing to ameliorate the American drug problem, and his conviction would be likewise meaningless.

The reason is simple.

By the time of Guzmán’s capture, “escape,” and recapture in the farce that made him a celebrity, he had already lost most of his power.

He was superfluous.


The critical thing to understand is that Guzmán wasn’t—and never would be—the sole “boss” of the Sinaloa cartel. We tend to think of cartels as pyramids, with a single head at the top, but in fact they’re more like wedding cakes with several tiers.

Guzmán was on the top tier, with others, the most important being Juan Esparragoza Moreno, the late Ignacio Coronel Villarreal, and a man named Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who has been prominently featured, albeit in absentia, in this trial.

A time-tested defense-attorney maxim says that if your client is obviously guilty, put someone else on trial. In their opening statement, Guzmán’s lawyers argued that he wasn’t the real boss of the Sinaloa cartel, long the biggest D.T.O. (drug-trafficking organization) in the world. Instead, they claim, that honor belonged to Zambada, and he has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to high-ranking officials in the Mexican government in order to remain, well, in absentia.

Witnesses, including Zambada’s own brother and son, have testified to the same.

But nobody calls Mayo Zambada the “godfather of the drug world,” and that’s the way he likes it. You don’t see Zambada interviewed in Rolling Stone, trying to launch romances with television stars, or working on a biopic about himself, as Guzmán did.

Zambada is a conservative businessman who prefers to stay behind the curtain. (If there is a Don Corleone of Mexican drug lords, it is Ismael Zambada.) And his partner Guzmán was becoming increasingly problematic.

All Rights Reserved for Don Winslow

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