Inside Drug Kingpin El Chapo’s Secret 1998 Meeting With the DEA
In 1997, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera was on the defensive. Locked up for the past five years, cornered by enemies, isolated from his family by the enemy gunmen he worried could be lurking outside the prison walls, and living in perpetual fear of being extradited to the United States, he reached out to the only people he thought might be able to help him: the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
In this excerpt, adapted from the forthcoming nonfiction book El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord, freelance journalist Noah Hurowitz tells of the story of the meeting that resulted from that contact. The book, which builds off of reporting Hurowitz did for Rolling Stone during the criminal trial of El Chapo in 2018 and 2019, will be published on July 20 by Atria Books.
On November 7, 1997, Joe Bond was in his office at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City when he received a call from one of the U.S. Marines standing guard outside. There was a guy, the Marine told him, who had a message for the DEA. Bond threw on a jacket and went downstairs to see what was up.
The visitor, whom Bond later referred to by the code name “Electra,” had a message for Bond, he said.
He was the brother-in-law of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the young and already infamous drug trafficker who had been captured and imprisoned for his role in a May 1993 shootout at the airport in Guadalajara that claimed the life of Archbishop Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, a popular Catholic official whose anti-corruption work had led to numerous theories of conspiracy in the wake of his murder. For the past few years, El Chapo had been behind bars in a maximum-security prison known as Puente Grande on the outskirts of Guadalajara, where he was said to live in comfort thanks to the money he spread around among the guards and prison officials.
Now, Electra said, El Chapo wanted to talk. To the DEA.
“Really,” Bond replied, at once interested and suspicious.
Yep, Electra said. But they had to be careful. Through Electra, El Chapo told them to use a code name: “Tito.”
Bond had been stationed in Mexico City for less than a year, but he was at home here. The son of a father from the U.S. and a Mexican mother, he’d grown up there the pampered golden boy of a sprawling, patrician family with links to the ruling Party of Institutional Revolution, which had controlled virtually every facet of political and economic life in the country ever since the Revolution wound down and ossified in the late 1920s.
Bond had decamped to the States for college, and after graduating had become a cop with the Mississippi Highway Patrol. With his fluency in Spanish and knowledge of Mexico, he’d begun working on joint task-forces with the DEA, and eventually joined the agency, where he ended up in an elite special-ops unit taking part in a campaign known as Operation Snowcap, locating and destroying cocaine crops and drug labs in Colombia, Bolivia, and Guatemala. Eventually, he rotated back stateside and returned to the resident office in Jackson, Mississippi, but when a posting in Mexico City opened up, he jumped at the chance to head back to his hometown and work out of the embassy there.
Now, though, back in the city of his childhood, it was already clear that his relationship with the local political and police forces was drastically different now that he was a U.S. federal agent. There were few counterparts in Mexican law enforcement who he felt he could trust. So when Electra approached him, he knew he had to tread carefully.
Bond’s bosses back in Washington needed some convincing; DEA agents could not easily waltz into Puente Grande the way they might enter a prison in the United States. The DEA brass were fearful of “another Kiki Camarena incident,” Bond recalled to me in an interview in early October, 2019, referring to a DEA agent kidnapped, tortured, and murdered in Guadalajara in 1985. Over the next several months, he worked on developing a plan that would allow them to access the prison as safely as possible. But in order to do that, he would need permission from the Mexican government.
The only person Bond trusted enough to speak to, and powerful enough to give permission, was José Luís Santiago Vasconcelos, the official with the office of the Mexican attorney general — known by its Spanish acronym, PGR — tasked with tackling drug trafficking. Of all the Mexican officials Bond dealt with, he had found Vasconcelos to be the most honest, the most willing to share intelligence, even allowing Bond to sometimes sit in on his brieﬁngs. With the utmost secrecy, Bond and another DEA agent, an intelligence officer named Larry Villalobos, began discussions with Vasconcelos and his boss.
They would have to go to Puente Grande undercover. El Chapo had stipulated that no one — not the prison warden, not the guards — could know that he was reaching out to the DEA. If word got back to other traffickers that he was talking to the gringos, he worried that his life, and the lives of his family members, would be in grave danger. He may have had much of the prison staff on his payroll, but he was not the only one. As for the agents, they knew that their safety inside the prison depended on keeping their true identities as tightly guarded as possible to prevent the possibility of being kidnapped or assaulted inside Puente Grande.
Finally, on March 2, 1998, Vasconcelos told Bond that the plan could move forward, as long as they agreed to bring along a representative of the PGR named José “Pepe” Patiño Moreno, for whom Vasconcelos vouched personally. Like Vasconcelos, Patiño had a reputation as being a rare honest prosecutor and had been involved in the investigation into the murder of Cardinal Posadas Ocampo, along with other high-proﬁle crimes linked to the Arellano-Félix organization.
Vasconcelos had arranged for agents Bond and Villalobos to pose as sociologists, telling the prison warden that Pepe Patiño was accompanying them while the “sociologists” conducted psychological proﬁles of prominent Mexican criminals. He did not say ahead of time who they wished to meet, and El Chapo would not have advance notice of the speciﬁc date on which they were to arrive. They didn’t want anyone to be able to plan any hijinks ahead of time.
On March 4, Bond reached out to Electra and told him to get word to El Chapo that they would be coming at some point in the future. The next day, the little delegation ﬂew to Guadalajara and drove to Puente Grande.
As Joe Bond, Larry Villalobos, and Pepe Patiño pulled up to the outer perimeter of Puente Grande, they found they had a welcoming party, a group of heavily armed guards awaiting their arrival.
The two DEA agents and the Mexican prosecutor spilled out of their car and presented themselves to the officer in charge, who solemnly checked each man’s credentials.
Bond handed over a fake driver’s license that he carried with him for undercover assignments, identifying him as “José Bonillas,” a pseudonym he had been using since his ﬁrst days as a cop back in Mississippi. It was just similar enough to his real name that if some unsuspecting pal or acquaintance greeted him with a hearty “Hey, Joe!” while he was on assignment, he could shrug it off; some people called him Joe, José Bonillas would explain.
Both DEA men had credentials identifying them as sociologists, and as both were native Spanish speakers, both of Mexican descent, they didn’t seem too out of place posing as Mexican sociologists. The officer in charge of the security detail nodded for them to follow him to the entrance of the prison.
Puente Grande cuts a foreboding silhouette, a sea of gray concrete walls, razor-sharp concertina wire, and grim watchtowers nestled in the verdant Jalisco countryside, like some kind of menacing, reverse oasis. At the time, it was home to some of the most dangerous men in Mexico (or at least, the most dangerous men who had fallen afoul of the police), and was notorious for corruption and for being run by wealthy inmates. Deﬁnitely a no-go zone for men like Joe Bond and Larry Villalobos.
Arriving at the entrance of the prison’s administrative area, a guard ushered them into the office of the warden, who waved them in with a chilly welcome. Once again they presented their passes and their credentials, and gave him the spiel, claiming that they were there to conduct psychological proﬁles of prominent Mexican criminals. The man on their agenda that day was El Chapo.
Bond could tell immediately that the warden did not believe them. The official gave them a knowing grin, looked them up and down, but said nothing.
“You could tell, like, ‘These guys are bullshitting me, but I have no choice,’” Bond recalled.
The warden may have been in charge of Puente Grande, but when the attorney general’s office in Mexico City told him a couple of sociologists needed access to the prison, he had no choice but to comply. So he welcomed them, however icily, and escorted the group to a private room in the medical wing of the prison that he had set aside for their visit, before excusing himself to go fetch the inmate.
While they waited, the DEA agents and the Mexican prosecutor took in their surroundings. The room really was set up for psych evaluations, complete with a sofa, a table and chairs, and two windows with metal bars on them overlooking the prison yard. After about ﬁfteen minutes, maybe half an hour, a guard opened the door and in walked the man they had come to see.
As the door closed behind him, El Chapo shook his visitors’ hands one by one. He was dressed in government-issue prison khakis, like those he had worn in front of the press scrum back in 1993 when officials had ﬁrst paraded him before the nation following his arrest in Guatemala. He looked better than he had then, like he had lost weight, was eating all right, had been getting exercise.
Once Bond was sure the guard had left, he introduced himself.
“Good afternoon,” Bond greeted the prisoner. “I am Tito.”
As soon as the code name left Bond’s mouth, the imprisoned drug lord went pale, his beady eyes narrowing. He’d known the agents would come at some point, but not when; he was unprepared, caught unawares.
Without saying a word, El Chapo dropped to the ﬂoor in a push-up position, and lowered himself down to peer under the door, checking to see if anyone was standing close and listening in, while Bond, Villalobos, and Patiño looked on.
Once El Chapo seemed certain no guards were snooping, he rose to his feet once more and gave the group another once-over. He began to mumble something, almost in a whisper, clearly thrown off.
Bond hastened to assure El Chapo once again that he was safe, and introduced himself, Villareal, and Patiño, stressing that although Patiño was with the PGR, they had complete faith in him.
El Chapo shot Patiño a glare, but nodded in acceptance.
He began to speak in a nervous torrent, ranting about his enemies, of the threats against him.
“They’re everywhere,” El Chapo said. “They,” people belonging to the Arellano-Félix network, were in Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Aguascalientes, and he worried they were going to try to kill him, kill his family members, anyone they could get their hands on associated with him.
“He was ranting,” Bond recalled. “I was like, ‘Just slow down, man.’” Bond could see that El Chapo was used to being in control, and he knew he needed to assert himself, show El Chapo that they were calling the shots here.
“He had great charisma, I’m not kidding you,” Bond told me later. “He obviously had the temperament to take control of things. He thought that, because we knew who he was, that he was gonna intimidate us. But he wasn’t going to intimidate us.”
After he ﬁnally calmed down, El Chapo began to bring the agents up to speed, and spoke bitterly of his distrust of Mexican officials. When El Chapo was ﬁrst arrested, he said, he had offered the PGR information on the Arellano-Félix brothers, but had waited with growing dismay while the agency took more than a week to act on his tip. When they ﬁnally raided the house where he said the brothers would be, his enemies had had time to ﬂee, and the PGR agents found nothing besides some cash. After that, he said, he had resolved to never again provide information to Mexican law enforcement. He simply couldn’t trust them.
Before he could say more, El Chapo made clear what he wanted: to be placed in a prison where he could speak face-to-face with an associate he trusted to gather up-to-date information on his enemies that El Chapo could feed to the DEA; he asked for a guarantee of safety for his family; and he asked that his outstanding charges in the United States be “resolved,” in order to fend off the possibility of extradition.
At this, Patiño got tough. El Chapo was in prison, he reminded the inmate, serving a twenty-year term. The group was there in good faith to hear information that might help the Mexican government and the United States ﬁght drug trafficking, but had no interest in banter, and had nothing to lose by walking back out the door and leaving El Chapo to sit out the rest of his sentence.
Bond cut in, telling El Chapo that he would have to provide information that proved his willingness to cooperate before the U.S. government even began to consider his requests.
El Chapo nodded solemnly.
“I will speak honestly to you, and I will give you my word on everything I am about to say,” he pledged.
He spoke of the Arellano-Félix brothers, of the events that had led to the war between his faction and theirs. The brothers, he said, were “intelligent, wealthy, and extremely dangerous,” according to a classiﬁed DEA report written later directly based on the notes Bond and Villalobos took at the meeting. The brothers, El Chapo warned, were in the practice of sending double agents to work as informants for the DEA and collect intel through their interactions with the gringos. Within the last six months, El Chapo said, he had learned that the group was smuggling drugs and cash under the border of Baja California and California. He named the men he said were responsible for dealing with the group’s Colombian contacts.
When the agents asked him about political protection of the Arellano-Félix clan, however, El Chapo clammed up. He refused to talk about politicians. “They’re too dangerous,” he said.
At this point, El Chapo changed the subject. He wanted to discuss El Güero Palma.
This came as a surprise, Bond recalled. As far as they knew at the time, El Güero and El Chapo were still friends and partners here in Puente Grande, as they had been on the outside for years.
According to El Chapo, however, they had not spoken in nearly four years. They had broken ties back in 1994, after El Güero had ordered the killing of El Chapo’s brother-in-law Sal López, the brother of El Chapo’s second wife, Griselda López, he said. El Güero had ordered the murder without sanction, without El Chapo’s blessing, and for this El Chapo said he was forced to break ties with his longtime friend and partner, despite their years of working with one another and their shared hatred of the Arellano-Félix brothers. They had not spoken since then, although outside of prison, El Chapo’s brother El Pollo and his former pilot Miguel Ángel Martínez Martínez had both worked with El Güero in some capacity. And they were not speaking now, despite being incarcerated together at Puente Grande.
El Chapo told the agents that because of this rupture in his alliance with his former friend, he was willing to provide information on El Güero if that would help his case. In twenty-four hours, he said, he could give the DEA and the PGR information on the whereabouts of drug storages and weapons caches; with a week’s notice, he could provide information on the group’s entire infrastructure, including the corrupt officials protecting them in their home base of Tepic, in the state of Nayarit, as well as along the border, in the city of San Luis Río Colorado, where El Güero’s people often crossed drugs.
In order to do this, however, El Chapo would need to be moved. He refused to summon any of his former associates to visit him at Puente Grande, for fear that Arellano-Félix killers would identify them and murder them. He suggested a move to a prison in Mexico City, pointing out that the open court case he faced in the capital would provide a handy cover for the transfer.
The meeting lasted around two hours. As it was winding down, El Chapo gave the agents and Patiño a warning. The Arellano-Félix brothers, he claimed, were planning to assassinate the former attorney general and current ambassador to France, and planning to frame him for the killing. He wanted to go on record that he was not involved in any threat against the former prosecutors.
They never did meet again. Shortly after the visit to Puente Grande, Bond got word from prosecutors in the United States that any further meetings could harm future court cases against El Chapo, and ordered him to cease contact. Bond was livid.
“They’re territorial, these fucking U.S. attorneys. I hate them all,” Bond told me, the order still clearly stinging more than twenty years later. “I said, ‘Man, what do you want? A feather in your hat? We’re the ones making the case, not you! You’re just writing it up!’”
Of the men whom Bond trusted to collaborate on the mission, most are now dead. Jose Luís Vasconcelos survived multiple assassination attempts before his death in a suspicious plane crash in 2008; Mariano Herrán Salvatti, Vasconcelos’s boss at the time, died in 2009, after his conviction — and subsequent exoneration — on corruption charges; but the worst fate among them was the grisly death of Bond’s friend Pepe Patiño, the man Bond had trusted enough to go inside Puente Grande with him to see El Chapo.
Patiño had been leading the PGR’s charge against the Arellano-Félix organization, a case that he had worked on and off since 1993, in the wake of the killing of Cardinal Posadas Ocampo. Joe Bond and other law enforcement officials described Patiño as one of the few officials in Mexico they could fully trust.
“If you needed any kind of help, he was there,” one U.S. prosecutor who worked with Patiño said later. “He was absolutely courageous. He was extremely bright. He did everything that was promised and more.”
On April 10, 2000, about two years after his trip to Puente Grande with Bond and Villalobos, Patiño and two colleagues, a federal prosecutor named Oscar Pompa Plaza and a Mexican Army captain named Rafael Torres Bernal, were crossing the border into Mexico after attending a meeting with the FBI and the DEA in San Diego. For some time now, the team had been working largely out of San Diego, rather than at their office in Tijuana, preferring the United States because they had more freedom to operate away from any prying eyes. The downside of this arrangement is that they were unarmed when they crossed the border. Their weapons were stashed just a short distance into Mexico, at a border guard outpost, but that short distance was all it took. Video cameras at the border crossing in Otay Mesa, California, showed the trio driving into Mexico, but then they vanished.
Two days later, the three men were found in their car, which appeared to have swerved — or been steered — into a ditch. But one look at the group showed they had not died in a car crash. An autopsy report later showed that they had suffered massive damage to their internal organs; two of them had had their heads crushed by a pneumatic press; someone had slashed them with knives; then, for good measure, the killers had run over them with a heavy truck.
Bond still wonders if his friend’s gruesome death came as a result of the meeting at Puente Grande.
“They found out through the warden that Pepe Patiño was there with the DEA,” he said. “They wanted to know what El Chapo Guzmán said about the [Arellano-Félix organization]. So, they tortured him, and then they killed him.”
That was the price so many honest cops paid in Mexico, before and since.
From the forthcoming book El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Infamous Drug Lord, by Noah Hurowitz. Copyright © 2021 by Noah Hurowitz. Published by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc. Reprinted by permission. Available here.
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