Talking to Convicted Drug Kingpins and Crime Experts About El Chapo’s Thirst for Fame

If nothing else, the saga of how Mexico's biggest drug lord ended up back in prison shows that, like so many other career criminals, he covets the spotlight.

by Seth Ferranti
Jan 19 2016, 6:15pm

Mexican drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán is escorted by army soldiers to a waiting helicopter, at a federal hangar in Mexico City, Friday, January 8. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

The recapture of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, in Mexico earlier this month has given the world's most infamous drug lord a healthy dose of attention. Shortly after news broke of Guzmán's capture at the hands of an elite squad of Mexican marines in his home state of Sinaloa, Sean Penn came under heavy criticism for his secret rendezvous with the fugitive criminal, and for the Rolling Stone article in which the actor self-indulgently detailed a bizarre October tete-a-tete in the Mexican jungle. On Sunday night, the man who famously portrayed Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High tried to explain himself on 60 Minutes, insisting that the Mexican government placed a target on his back when they blamed El Chapo's capture at least partly on the meeting he had with Penn.

Regardless of what you think about Penn as a practitioner of journalism, this whole affair has clarified that El Chapo—like generations of drug lords, gangsters, and banditos before him—is determined to court public admiration. From Al Capone to Bonnie and Clyde, right up to modern day outlaws like Pablo Escobar, John Gotti, and Demetrius "Big Meech" Flenory from the Black Mafia Family (BMF), major criminals often covet the spotlight.

"Most of the public is enamored with celebrities." says Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore. "Individuals like El Chapo may believe that they have similar qualities to famous people, and that there is minimal difference between being famous and infamous."

Lest we forget, criminal indictments against Guzmán in various US states accuse the man of being involved in a rash of murders and kidnappings, in addition to running the largest narcotics operation in the western hemisphere. But that didn't stop him from seeking validation in the form of a biopic on the big screen.

"What really amazed me was that he was interested in doing a movie," says Freeway Rick Ross, the legendary former crack kingpin from Los Angeles. "He could have financed the movie himself with the type of money he has. He was already one of the most famous people in the world. I don't know why he would have wanted to be any more famous than he already was. His goal should have been to stay free, because your freedom is a powerful thing to lose."

Yet seemingly due in no small part to his movie ambitions—if also a possible wish to court the actress Kate del Castillo, who acted as a go-between for Penn and Guzmán—El Chapo has forfeited his freedom yet again.

"I think he was very foolish to want to make a movie when in fact he was already a movie without making one," says Donald "Sly" Green, the former head of a large scale drug organization out of Buffalo who's currently serving a life sentence in federal prison. "Like Gotti, he wanted to be more famous than he already was. It was an unrealistic move that now puts him away for his entire life with extreme high security. He'll regret that."

Indeed, the latest indications suggest that while Guzmán is back in the very same prison from which he escaped in July, authorities are moving him to different cells constantly to prevent the tunnel maven's cronies from coming to fetch him. Motion sensors and new cameras are helping keep tabs on him. And whereas the Mexican government had previously refused to consider extraditing Guzmán to face charges in the United States, that seems increasingly likely this time—even if it takes years.

Shawn Rech, the co-director of the true-crime documentary A Murder in the Park, argues the high-profile gangsters of our era are prone to selling themselves out for short-term gratification.

"If you look back at gangsters in America, only the guys with fancy suits, jewelry and luxury cars went to prison," Rech says. "The low-key guys stayed free and amassed fortunes. Add to that the element of wanting to be a folk hero—a twisted, modern day Robin Hood, and you've got the pathology of an El Chapo. Guys like him and Pablo Escobar actually believed they were good guys."

But in Mexico's drug underworld, there's a certain method to El Chapo's madness.

"In the narco culture of Sinaloa, there's been a long tradition of drug traffickers promoting themselves in song and film," explains Ioan Grillo, a journalist covering the drug war who wrote Gangster Warlords and El Narco . "They actually pay drug balladeers to pen verses about them, painting them as heroes who have the balls to stand up to the DEA and Mexican army. El Chapo was just taking it up a notch by making links with Hollywood."

El Chapo may be a modern drug lord, but the saga of his capture speaks to age-old proclivities on the part of career criminals determined to carve out a legacy.

Kevin Chiles, a notorious Harlem drug lord who documents the stories of legendary gangsters in Don Diva, a magazine he founded in prison, said, "We've been doing stories for 17 years now, since the inception of Don Diva, and that's one thing they all have in common. It doesn't seem to matter what nationality you are or how rich you are—notoriety and infamy always gets the best of them."

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