El Chapo: Governments Escalate Battle Against Drug Kingpin

In the months since his headline-grabbing escape from Mexico’s hyper-maximum security prison Altiplano, Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera has been one of the world’s most wanted men. Now, the governments of both Mexico and the United States are intensifying their war against the drug kingpin.

On Monday, Forbes reported that the U.S. Department of Treasury froze the U.S. assets of two of the Sinaloa cartel’s highest-ranking associates. One of the targets, Guadalupe Fernández Valencia, allegedly moves drugs and money for the cartel; the other, Jorge Mario Valenzuela, works for the cartel in drug distribution.

Treasury utilized the 1999 Kingpin Act, formally the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, in its move against El Chapo. Violations of the Kingpin Act for any corporate entity – such as a bank that may be used by the cartel to launder money – can be stiff. Forbes reports fines for a corporation can be as high as $10 million.

The move to freeze financial assets comes just after the Mexican government seized a sizable amount of El Chapo’s personal assets. On Nov. 26, USA Today reported that the Mexican government “confiscated a total of 11 planes, eight vehicles and six houses belonging to the kingpin in the past five months.”

Such seizures likely don’t even put a dent in El Chapo’s total holdings. The Sinaloa cartel that El Chapo is the boss of is Mexico’s most powerful drug cartel, trafficking billions of dollars into the U.S. every year. Mexico lacks sufficiently strong asset seizure laws to really damage El Chapo and suffers from weak political will and too much corruption, according to USA Today.

Evidence of this corruption was visible in El Chapo’s time at Altiplano. While incarcerated, El Chapo received 46 conjugal visitations, according to the Huffington Post, averaging out to about one every nine days he was there. He also discussed, in the presence of security cameras, his plans to escape the prison and return to running his drug empire.

When El Chapo finally escaped from Altiplano in July, it was through a nearly mile-long tunnel connected to a hole dug up into his prison cell’s shower. El Chapo is no stranger to tunnels – according to the New Yorker, he previously eluded Mexican marines through an elaborate series of underground tunnels connected to seven houses, and his Sinaloa cartel built the first cross-border tunnel in 1989.

The Sinaloa cartel's influence reaches every corner of the continental U.S. [Source: DEA]

Since his escape, El Chapo has had close calls. At one point in October, Mexican authorities nearly had him. According to CNN, El Chapo fell off a cliff as Mexican special forces chased him. He apparently broke his leg, but body guards picked him up from the base of the cliff and escaped with him into a dense forest nearby.

Despite his outlaw status, El Chapo is not universally regarded as a deadly fugitive. In some Mexican communities, he is a modern-day living folk hero. His multiple daring escapes from authority and his rags-to-riches story inspire some locals while his generosity to some poor Mexican communities wins him their favor and allegiance.

According to the New York Times, El Chapo is also seen as a stabilizing influence to some locals. The paper quotes systems engineer Eric Reyes as saying, “If you live in a dealer’s territory he treats you well. The government won’t do anything for you. It’s all bureaucracy and red tape.”

El Chapo’s wealth and influence makes him a formidable opponent for law enforcement. In a report released around the time of El Chapo’s prison escape, the DEA indicated on maps of the U.S. where and which cartels have the most influence. Sinaloa virtually covers the map, with enormous influence east of the Mississippi and all the way into the northern part of Maine.

[Photo by Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office via AP]