The War Next Door

Page 6 of 7

But Chapo had a plush suite in the prison, complete with a personal chef, plenty of Buchanan's whiskey and an endless supply of Viagra. He also had a girlfriend, an attractive ex-cop coke addict named Zulema. By 2001, faced with the prospect of extradition to the United States, Chapo was growing despondent. After he slept with Zulema, he would fall into long brooding silences. "I knew that if he escaped, they might kill him," she later told a reporter. "He knew what he was going to face. It's all your life running. It's all your life hiding. It's all your life desperate. I knew that there were many voices in his silence."

At the time, President Vicente Fox had just been elected, ending decades of rule by the PRI. The Gulf cartels and the Zetas were inflicting unprecedented violence along the border to seize control of supply routes from Chapo and the Sinaloan-run cartels. The government was unable to contain the crisis. The new groups acquired enough weapons and intelligence to rival the Mexican armed forces; the Sinaloan cartels were cowed by the megaviolent Zetas.

Then came the miracle. With Chapo's extradition to America only days away, suddenly, magically, deus ex machina, the bars and doors and gates of Grande Puente swung open, and the kingpin was spirited out — in a laundry van, say some, brazenly walking out the front door, say others. The feat became the latest and most audacious act in Chapo's long history of eluding the authorities. But what if his magic trick was arranged by the government? What if Chapo was set free to fight the Zetas and the other violent cartels — in the streets, to the death? What if Chapo is an unofficial instrument of government policy? This view is commonly held by political and law-enforcement elites in Mexico. The academic Luis Astorga is careful to refer to Chapo's "escape," using his hands to indicate quotation marks.

"Chapo is protected by the narcos and the people in the mountains," Edgar says. "But he's also protected at the federal level. The prison doors didn't just open by magic. Chapo was released by the government. They let him go so he could fight the other narcos and the Zetas. There are severe limits on how the government can fight. It is difficult for the police to raid a house, because of human and legal rights. But not for Chapo. He is very powerful. Very brave. He's not afraid of the Zetas or anyone."

The notion of using one narco to counter other, more dangerous narcos makes perfect sense to Edgar. The strategy was born of necessity, he says. Chapo comes from a long line of Sinaloan cartels. He doesn't reject the state entirely or want to rule the country himself. He was in prison so prosecutors could make a deal with him, in the way informants are flipped during investigations of organized crime.

"Today Chapo moves from state to state, from country to country, without a problem," Edgar says. "Many people know where he is. You can't do this without federal protection. Chapo can deal his drugs and do his business, but he must respect certain limits. No women or children should be killed. Don't kidnap. Don't steal. Chapo respects the government."

As we talk, the ex-commandante grows increasingly uneasy. His back is to the window; he can't see the Hummers and Escalades with tinted windows passing by outside. He asks to switch tables. Since his promotion, the only way it is possible for him to move around Culiacán is with an armed escort. But his security detail has been taken away, and he fears for his life. We shift to a table in the middle of the restaurant.

"Most people in Culiacán are only one or two steps away from the cartels, through a brother or a cousin," Edgar continues. "It is very common for police and prosecutors to eat with narcos, to go to their weddings. Chapo could be arrested if they want to. We in law enforcement don't have good coordination. It's all fucked up. The disorganization is huge. People don't follow orders. They don't speak to each other. Intelligence isn't working. But the priority right now is the Beltrán Leyva cartel. The police would rather get Mochomo than Chapo. Mochomo is crazy. He kills a lot of people. The same is true for his brother, Barbas."

"Where do you think Chapo is?" I ask.

"In the mountains," says Edgar. "He's very protected there." He pauses. "Unless he's in Costa Rica."

"Do you think I could get an interview with Chapo?" I ask.

"There is a $5 million reward out for Chapo," Edgar says. "They will think you are DEA."

Searching for more leads to Chapo's whereabouts, I stop by Las Palmas, a steakhouse in Culiacán. Last November, according to Valdez, the restaurant was taken over by dozens of Chapo's armed guards, the doors barred and all cellphones confiscated. "We're going to have my boss here," a guard announced. "Don't worry — nothing is going to happen to you. And don't worry about the bill. He is going to pay for everything." Chapo entered with a group of 20 men, said good evening to the crowd, then retired to a private room.

When I visit Las Palmas, I find a brightly lit place with a vaguely gangster air. An ancient waiter in a white shirt and a black vest says the story about Chapo is bullshit. He had told the police the same thing: Chapo didn't have dinner here. But then the waiter can't help himself — he needs me to know the truth. "If Chapo was going to eat a steak — if he was looking for the best steak in town — he would certainly come here," he says with a conspiratorial smile.

The next morning, Julio calls. He has been trying to convince a friend to take me to another area in the Sierra Madres where Chapo is said to be hiding, but the man refused. "Not for a million pesos," he told Julio. "For no amount of money." Julio has another contact who is already up in the mountains. This man is "with" Chapo, not as a narco but as a gaucho, tending to Chapo's horses. It is agreed that Julio's friend will meet me at the edge of a town in the foothills, at a gas station. I rent a Jeep and head out with Sara. But when we reach the gas station, Julio's friend doesn't turn up. We call his cellphone. The cowboy is furious. Rumors have been traveling around Chapo's circles about me. He wants to know whose "people" I am "with."

Sara explains that I am a reporter, but he doesn't believe her. He says I have to be "with" someone — an assassin sent by Barbas, a gringo hired by the Zetas, an undercover DEA agent. "This happened before," the man says. "A man who said he was a journalist went into the Sierras. He never came back. You can come. But no one will speak to you. Not about Chapo. And you might not get out."

At the gas station, a local man agrees to guide me to the village of Santiago de los Caballeros, which translates as Saint of the Knights. The village is the heart of narco territory, the equivalent of Corleone for the Sicilian Mafia. A few miles along the road, we turn onto a ragged side track. The route cuts through deep jungle, across riverbeds and up mud-sloped rises. The man asks why I want to go into the mountains. As I reply, his face goes pale. Four people were massacred recently, he says. Soldiers get drunk and high and paranoid and start firing at the slightest provocation — or for no reason at all.

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