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Catapults and Jalapeños: The Ingenious Smuggling Tech of the World's Top Drug Kingpin

For a semi-illiterate grammar school dropout, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán is a bloody mastermind. Guzmán, 55, sits atop Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel, which by all accounts is arguably the richest, most powerful crime syndicate in history. That's him on...

by Brian Anderson
Jun 18 2012, 5:30pm

For a semi-illiterate grammar school dropout, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán is a bloody mastermind. Guzmán, 55, sits atop Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel, which by all accounts is arguably the richest, most powerful crime syndicate in history. That’s him on the left. A stocky, calculating leader, Chapo pushes more drugs today than Pablo Escobar at the height of his reign.

Chapo is myth, the stuff of countless narcocorridos. Chapo is legend, revered and cursed as much for escaping prison (via laundry cart, as the legend goes) in 2001 as he’s said to rock on the balls of his feet when looking subordinates in the eyes, dishing succinct orders. Chapo, the centerpiece of “Cocaine Incorporated,” Patrick Radden Keefe’s recent and exhaustive profile of the kingpin, could well be the last of his kind.

It’s a fascinating read. Keefe paints an incredibly detailed portrait of an insanely complex figure – “He’s an octopus,” a longtime Guzmán accomplice once said in testimony – about which much still remains in the shadows of the illicit underworld. By mapping Chapo’s steady rise from his fledgling Guadalajara cartel days in the early ’80s to eventually running his own show, the Sinaloa, Keefe establishes the guy as any and all of these things: an unlikely scrap from the Sierra foothills; a former coke head; a shrewd businessman; a billionaire; a loving husband and father; possibly a murderer.

But it’s as an innovator of smuggling – the physical, dirty, high-risk challenge of moving product across time and space – that really seems to set Chapo above and beyond everyone else in the game. He’ll best his rivals and outwit the border watchers. And that’s that. For when it comes to supplying Americans with seemingly endless rails of coke, plus tons of weed, heroin and meth, Chapo’s smuggling tech is in a constant state of reimagination.


via Military Times

Chapo and the Sinaloa were moving so much of that fresh-cut Columbian yayo by 1990 that simply getting the product to the U.S.-Mexico border became an entirely new challenge. So they began packing the stuff into small private planes, inside luggage smuggled onto commercial airliners and, soon enough, into their very own 747s, which could carry up to 13 tons of blow. They took to the sea, as well, smuggling the stuff on container ships and fishing vessels and inside their own go-fast jet boats and, notably, submarines.

The first generation of narco subs was predictably slapshod – clumsy semi-submersibles, if anything. But they quickly evolved, much like those seen in Motherboard’s documentary on narco subs, into full-on submersibles designed by engineers and pieced together under thick shrouds of Amazon canopy. After being disassembled and floated downriver, these craft are quickly rebuilt on the coastline before setting off to wherever the drugs are needed. At around $1 million (cartel chump change) a pop, these things can accommodate two or three grown men, and can cruise for thousands of miles. They’re even typically equipped with levers that, should the Coast Guard start barreling down, can be pulled, flooding the interior and sinking the precious cargo.

Stuffed Peppers

via Judy Ransom

Really. At one point Chapo opened a cannery in Guadalajara, where he began pumping out cans of “Comadre Jalapeños" by the thousands. Each pepper inside was stuffed with coke before being vacuum-sealed and eventually lining the aisles of certain Mexican-owned grocers in California.


via Gawker

If there’s one emblem of the Sinaloa – any cartel, really – doing whatever it takes to keep their wares flowing, whatever it takes to reap more and more of the distinct fortune behind getting America high, this is it. Oh, you’re going to put up a fancy fence? Well we see your fancypants fence, and raise you this ancient Grecian artillery.

“[Border Patrol] erect this fence, only to go out there a few days later and discover that these guys have a catapult," Michael Braun, the former D.E.A. chief of operations, told Keefe, alluding to a cutting-edge fence marking the Arizona-Mexico border. "And they’re flinging hundred-pound bales of marijuana over to the other side. A catapult. We’ve got the best fence money can buy, and they counter us with a 2,500-year-old technology.”

Dune Buggies

via U.S. Open Borders

When subs, canned heat and/or projectiles aren’t likely to do the trick, there’s always border penetration via plane, train and automobile.

Chapo’s Sinaloa have been known to ford the Colorado River with sandbag bridges, over which dune-buggies payloaded with high-grade Buddha rumble off into the cholla, destined for some stop along the Northern drug route. They’re also known for concealing drugs inside refrigerated tractor-trailers and “custom-made cavities in the bodies of cars and in truckloads of fish,” according to Keefe, and also inside freight trains, which lurch “to cartel warehouses in Los Angeles and Chicago, where rail spurs let the cars roll directly inside to unload.”

When all else fails, there’s always FedEx.


via Los Angeles Times

But what could be Joaquín Guzmán’s greatest smuggling scheme doesn’t hop the border – it burrows beneath. Chapo has pioneered the art of tunneling, putting an entirely new spin on “going underground.”

As Keefe put it, Chapo’s greatest contribution to the constantly evolving tradecraft of transnational drug pushing “was one of those innovations that seem so logical in hindsight it’s a wonder nobody thought of it before.” Sometime in the late ‘80s Chapo contracted an architect to design for underground passage between Mexico and a Sinaloa stash house in Douglas, Arizona. The end result was a 200-foot tunnel, running just below the border’s fortifications, between the warehouse and the home of a cartel attorney. There, a nondescript “water faucet” beside the attorney’s place could be pulled, cracking a trapdoor hidden under a billiard table inside the home. What’d the boss think? According to Keefe, “Chapo pronounced it ‘cool.’”

Officials sniffed out the tunnel shortly thereafter. Then as now, the federales and Feds alike seem to always be closing in on El Chapo. You can’t help but wonder for how long he’ll be able to play to the reputation that precedes him, to continually slip away into myth.

True, a good many of Mexico’s police and politicians are on Sinaloa payrolls. But today more than ever finds the man beleaguered, stumbling to regain footing after a succession of arrests of some of his top confidantes and dealing with the constant, bloodied reality that the Zetas, his top cartel rival to the east, pose a genuine threat to seizing Sinaloa border turf. What’s more, millions and millions of federal dollars, from both sides of the wall, are being thrown at reengineering the borderlands, where scanners, tethered radar blimps and Predator drones all keep steady watch. History will doubtless cast a dark shadow over Joaquín Guzmán for triggering so much of the bloodbath that’s taken 50,000 lives, and counting, and dashed the hopes of so many of the living who now count down the days until he can’t any longer chuck weed over the wall, or dig his way under it.

For now, though, Chapo’s organization is figured to be pulling down annual revenues somewhere to the tune of $3 billion, just like Facebook. So long as the stateside demand – “the insatiable North American nose," as historian Héctor Aguilar Camín once called it – doesn’t let up (it won’t), it really isn’t all that crazy to think Chapo’s means of delivering the goods, as clever and borderline comical as they already are, will only continue to adapt. And knowing his smuggling innovations are already proliferating, copycatting among other border cartels, could mean that even after his time comes, Chapo will remain where he’s always been: A step ahead of the game.

Top image via Cortesía / Agencia Reforma

Reach this writer at @thebanderson


El Chapo
Sinaloa Cartel
Joaquin Guzman