Now that Mexico has pledged to extradite notorious drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera to the United States for trial, many U.S. jurisdictions are vying for the right to prosecute him – and to gain his cooperation in dismantling perhaps the biggest, most destructive narcotics empire to send drugs into this country.
One of only two U.S. officials to sit across the table from Guzman says it’s likely “El Chapo,” as the drug kingpin is known, will attempt to cut a deal and dangle the possibility of providing information that’s invaluable to federal authorities from coast to coast.
But former top Drug Enforcement Administration official Larry Villalobos also says Guzman is extremely smart, cagey and loyal, and that he is much more likely to rat out rival cartel members than leaders of his own Sinaloa cartel, who are keeping the multibillion-dollar organization humming.
“He’s always going to try to cut another deal,” said Villalobos, who had an extensive meeting in a Mexican prison with Guzman back in 1998 about trading information for cutting time off the lengthy term he was serving. “He’s looking at lots of time in the United States.”
Even if he doesn’t turn against his own cartel leaders, Guzman could provide the biggest trove of intelligence about the global drug war, by far, that the U.S. has ever gotten, according to Villalobos and others. “He has knowledge of 30 years of drug wars in Mexico; he’s been involved in all of it,” said Villalobos, who was the chief intelligence officer at the El Paso Intelligence Center before retiring in 2012 to join SGI Global, LLC, a security and consulting firm.
Guzman knows the details about which top politicians, law enforcement and military leaders have been corrupted by the various Mexican drug cartels, and how that corruption has undermined U.S. counter-narcotics efforts
He also knows all about the vast network of wholesale and retail drug-trafficking operations in the United States.
And Guzman has encyclopedic knowledge of the global network of transportation, logistics and production entities that allow the global drug trade to flourish in the face of such an intensive U.S.-led counter-narcotics campaign, Villalobos said.
That information is especially important to the U.S. given its focus on stopping the flow of drugs at the source.
“I think more valuable to the U.S. government is [Guzman’s knowledge of] the machine that gets the product through Mexico and into the U.S., the information he knows about the source countries, the submarines and boats, the management of the whole operation,” Villalobos said.
For the past few decades, Guzman has been almost single-handedly in charge of logistics for the Sinaloa cartel, one of Mexico’s largest – everything from manufacturing drugs to procuring them from suppliers throughout Latin America to getting them across the border and into literally dozens of U.S. cities and towns.
Guzman got so good at it that he was dubbed “El Rapido” by Colombian drug lords for his ability to get cocaine into the U.S. within 24 hours, Villalobos said, in part by building an extensive network of tunnels and other clandestine routes via air, land and sea.
He admitted as such in his interview with Sean Penn for “Rolling Stone” back in October. “I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world,” Penn quoted Guzman as saying. “I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.”
It’s not clear which of at least seven U.S. jurisdictions with charges against Guzman will ultimately try him, or when – or whether -- authorities would be open to negotiating. Villalobos said the U.S. cases are strong, and that a significantly reduced sentence or the ability to stay in Mexico are likely out of the question.
But Guzman could offer to cooperate in an effort to minimize exposure for the many family members involved in his operation, or to get better prison accommodations, including a location closer to the Mexican border than the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado where some other cartel chieftains reside.
Guzman had already served five years in prison when he reached out to the U.S. government in 1998, saying he wanted to cut a deal in exchange for a reduced sentence or a promise not to be extradited to the United States, Villalobos said.
The cartel leader knew that he couldn’t run his drug empire from a cell in the United States, as he did in Mexico. And in a Mexican prison, he seemed to know it was only a matter of time before he escaped.
“He almost talked [as if he knew] he would be getting out,” said Villalobos, who was a top DEA official in Mexico City at the time. “I think he always believed that no [Mexican] jail would hold him.”
Villalobos and another agent, Joe Bond, spent two hours listening to Guzman as he offered to help the U.S. government take down the leaders of the rival Arellano Felix cartel, and provided details. And after Guzman escaped from that prison in 2001, he reached out to the DEA officials, saying he still wanted to provide information on the rivals, who he accused of stealing his best operatives and setting him up for crimes that they had committed.
This time, Guzman may wait until he’s been in a U.S. prison for a few years before offering to cut a deal, or until he’s convicted of drug charges and his appeals are exhausted, Villalobos said.
“Sitting in prison has a habit of changing a lot of minds,’’ he said. “The first step is to get him here.”