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Sex, Snacks, and Soccer: How Mexican Drug Lords End Up Captured

El Chapo's now famous mobile conversations with actress Kate del Castillo while he was Mexico's most wanted fugitive are just one of many examples of seeming carelessness that has brought down capos who are supposed to be experts in security.

by Andrea Noel
Jan 20 2016, 5:00pm

Photo via VICE News

Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán's rise from poverty-stricken farm boy to become one of the world's most successful drug traffickers who broke out of two maximum-security prisons is often attributed to exceptional cunning and careful planning. His recent recapture didn't make him look so clever.

"Chapo was very careless," the former director of Mexico's intelligence agency, Guillermo Valdés, told VICE News, putting particular emphasis on the "first-grade error" of his mobile phone chats with the actress Kate del Castillo that the authorities say helped track him down. 

"If the man had a weakness for women, intercepting his communications with her would have been an obvious first step for investigators."

Guzmán isn't the only drug boss who has let his guard down in such seemingly amateur ways. Mexico is full of cases in which notorious fugitives were caught thanks to birthday celebrations, culinary cravings, and sporting enthusiasm — not infrequently mixed with reckless visits to mothers, children, wives, mistresses, or prostitutes.

Related: Mexican Drug Lord Lived in a Cave and Was Caught Because His Girlfriend Brought Him Birthday Cake

Following Chapo's previous arrest in February 2014 and before his elaborate escape last July, Mexico's most wanted criminal was Servando Gómez Martínez, known as La Tuta.

La Tuta rose to power within the Knights Templar cartel in 2010 after the falsely reported death of its leader, Nazario Moreno González or "The Craziest One." By early 2015, however, the cartel was in disarray and La Tuta lived in caves in the mountains.

The capo was finally arrested in the city of Morelia on February 27 while eating at a hot dog stand around 3am. Authorities said they had been tracking him since his 49th birthday weeks before, when they located the safe house he had been using by tracking a messenger and La Tuta's mistress, who had taken the drug boss a chocolate cake.

Famously narcissistic criminal bosses don't only make themselves vulnerable on their own birthdays.

According to former head of intelligence Valdés, the leader of the infamously bloodthirsty Zetas cartel, Omar Treviño Morales, was brought down by "a weakness for speaking with his mother."

Known as Z-42, Treviño Morales was arrested last March, less than a month after La Tuta, after reportedly coming out of hiding to celebrate her birthday.

"The best way for investigators to get information about where the suspect will be, and when, is from members of the closest circle," Valdés said. "Detecting who is in the inner circle takes time. As with La Tuta's arrest, they had to watch who was bringing the cake, sodas, and food for his birthday. It's not easy, but that's usually how you catch these sort of suspects who are experts in living clandestinely."

Mike Vigil, former head of the DEA in San Diego, told VICE News that it often all comes down to family as criminals who "would conduct wholesale slaughter of humans," turned into "very caring and loving parents" when they went home at night. That transformation, it seems, can make them sloppy.

"Their kids meant everything to them," he said. "But when it comes to their families, [drug gang leaders] make a lot of mistakes."

Benjamín Arellano Félix, the financial operator of the Tijuana cartel, was arrested in March 2002, a month after his brother Ramón was killed in a shootout with a police officer and the heat was on. Mexican authorities boasted that they were able to locate Benjamín because he was never far from his daughter who has an inoperable facial tumor that made her easy to identify.

"Once we knew that he was with his family, we were able to track him through his daughter's prominent chin," then Defense Secretary Ricardo Vega García said on Mexican television. By dressing as pizza deliverers and other inconspicuous workers, investigators kept tabs on the family, former chief anti-drug prosecutor José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos told The Washington Post that year.

Related: Last Link to the Tijuana Cartel Gets Arrested While Celebrating Mexico's World Cup Win.

A love of sport can also make fugitives vulnerable.

Mexican drug trafficker José Díaz Barajas, 49, was arrested during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil while boarding a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Fortaleza, the city hosting the Mexico vs. Brazil match. Díaz Barajas, who had met up with his wife and two kids to go to the game, was wanted on methamphetamine-related drug charges and was extradited to the US.

During the same World Cup, Fernando Sánchez Arellano — a nephew of the once untouchable Arellano Félix brothers and one of the last free heirs to the Tijuana cartel — was arrested at a Carl's Jr. just south of the San Diego border, while celebrating Mexico's victory over Croatia. He was wearing the national team's jersey, and had tri-color flags painted on his cheeks.

Not quite a major sporting event, but Iván Cazarín Molina was detained in November while he drank beer and played soccer on a street in the central Mexican city of Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco state. The authorities boasted that they had caught the number two of the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, said to be the fastest growing criminal organization in the country and known for its sophisticated trafficking and money laundering operations, as well as the fact that it shot down an army helicopter with an RPG.

Related: Mexico Arrests Alleged Drug Kingpin While He Was Getting Drunk and Playing Soccer.

Leaders of other cartels have similarly fallen victim to their own overconfidence and failure to lie low. Arturo Beltrán Leyva, who liked to call himself "The Boss of the Bosses," founded a drug gang with three of his brothers that was once considered one of the most important in the country.

The Beltrán Leyva cartel worked in partnership with Chapo's trafficking group within a broader organization known as the Sinaloa Federation until the alliance fell apart in 2008 leading to one of the bloodiest turf battles of Mexico's drug wars — which Chapo won.

The cartel suffered the blow that would lead to its demise in December 2009, when the navy killed Arturo Beltrán Leyva in a major shootout at a luxury highrise. The authorities had picked up his trail thanks to a massive Christmas party held in his honor just days before. A Grammy award-winning musician and 24 prostitutes, as well as many gunmen, were reportedly among the guests.

Arturo's successors would also later succumb to trademark recklessness.

Héctor Beltrán Leyva rode out the toughest years, during which the cartel disintegrated into multiple spin-off groups. He was eventually picked up in October 2014 while eating fish tacos at a restaurant in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende.

Most recently, in July, Martín Villegas Navarrete, one of the newer generation of Beltrán Leyva cartel leaders, was arrested after traveling from Acapulco to a hip Mexico City neighborhood "to celebrate his birthday," the authorities said.

Related: Chapo's Return to Prison: The Hunt, the Biopic, and a Weakness for Tunnels.

"Not all of the falls have coincided with birthdays or funerals or some special event," former DEA chief Vigil noted, stressing that the roots of a particular kingpin's vulnerability often lie in cartel instability.

But even in cases where this is clear — and when it wasn't the authorities but the capos' enemies that got to them first — similar patterns of carelessness can be seen.

Founding Tijuana cartel boss Francisco Arellano Félix was arrested after an unsuccessful attempt to have "El Chapo" Guzmán killed at the Guadalajara airport. In 2013, five years after his release from prison, the eldest Arellano Félix brother was shot dead by a clown while celebrating his 63rd birthday in Los Cabos, Baja California. Who sent the clown and why, are questions that have never been fully clarified.

The former head of the Juárez cartel, Amado Carrillo Fuentes — known as "The Lord Of The Skies" for the fleet of planes he used during his criminal career — was Mexico's most wanted criminal when he died in 1997 while undergoing plastic surgery. The three doctors who allegedly performed the botched operation were found encased in cement four months later.

Amado's brother, Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, took control of the Juarez cartel after his death, entering into a major war with former ally El Chapo after his first escape from prison in 2001. One of the war's triggers was the murder of a third Carrillo Fuentes brother, Rodolfo, outside of a movie theater in the Sinaloan capital of Culiacán in 2004.

Related: Severed Heads Found in Tijuana Might Signal a Renewed Cartel Turf War.

But most often, Vigil said, capos are caught when mounting social pressure forces the authorities to make more effort to regain control. And when the government really wants to bring a drug lord in, they often end up having to rely on their target's help.

For most of the 13 years that Chapo was free after his first jailbreak the authorities showed little progress in hunting him down. The only time they claimed to have come close was in 2012, when he reportedly rented a house in Los Cabos to meet a prostitute. The head of the organized crime unit at the time, Cuitláhuac Salinas Martínez, told reporters that Chapo had narrowly escaped because the rendezvous was cut short when the prostitute refused to have sex because she was menstruating.

Chapo was finally re-arrested in February 2014 at a Sinaloa resort with his young twin daughters and wife, Emma Coronel — a California-born pageant queen whom he married on her 18th birthday. Authorities said the capo, who has fathered at least nine children with three different women, was non-combative due to his family's presence.

Authorities later claimed that his daughters were the key to his capture, and that he typically went no more than 10 days without seeing them.

When Guzmán escaped for the second time from maximum security prison last July through a mile-long tunnel leading out from his cell, the Mexican government launched a sweeping national manhunt. The authorities first came close when El Chapo narrowly escaped a navy operation in his mountain stronghold in early October, sparking rampant speculation of how they had located him there.

Some well-placed Mexican reporters claimed high-level official sources told them it all came down to Chapo's efforts to reunite one of his twin daughters with her pet monkey. Some claimed the monkey was identified at a checkpoint heading into the mountains and fitted with a tracking device.

Related: Sean Penn, Who? — The Leaked Messages Between El Chapo and Kate del Castillo

After Guzmán was finally arrested on January 8, the authorities began stressing the importance of his mobile phone communications with Kate del Castillo. Leaked conversations suggested the capo was infatuated with the actress to the point of becoming notably lax on his security.

Del Castillo had, the version goes, not only taken Hollywood actor Sean Penn to interview the capo on October 2, but also lead the authorities to his hideout.

Following the allegations of an intimate relationship between the actress and the drug lord, Mexican media reported this week that Guzmán visited a plastic surgeon in Tijuana around the time of his meeting with Del Castillo and Penn, to have a penile prosthesis implanted. He was reportedly found with several hundred dollars in medication to treat erectile dysfunction at the time of his arrest.

Chapo was eventually caught in the coastal city of Los Mochis. Mexican attorney general Arely Gómez said in an interview in El Universal on Tuesday that he had gone there because of the pressure in the mountains and also, perhaps, because he was fed up with the cold in the sierra. He had, she said, spent Christmas with his wife and daughters and New Year with a lover.

But, according to a report in The New York Times, what led the authorities to the particular safe house where he was hiding out on the night before he was recaptured was the identification of a van known to be used by Chapo's inner circle. It was seen picking up a very large order of tacos.

Related: Here's Everything You Need To Know About What's Happened Since El Chapo's Recapture.

Left to right in the picture above: Omar Treviño Morales, Servando Gómez Martínez, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, Arturo Beltrán Leyva, Fernando Sánchez Arrellano, Amado Carrillo Fuentes

Follow Andrea Noel on Twitter @MetabolizedJunk