“Say hello to my little friend.”
Everyone remembers how cocaine kingpin Tony Montana went down in Brian de Palma’s gonzo crime classic Scarface… in a hail of gunfire, ripped-to-the-gills on Miami’s best Bolivian Marching Powder. Most drug kingpins are killed by rival cartels, their hideouts raided by the DEA, or in the strange case of Christopher Coke, AKA “Dudus,” the kingpin of Jamaica’s notorious Shower Posse, they’re detained at a routine roadblock dressed as a woman.
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, however, remains active and on the run. Called the “godfather of the drug world” by the DEA, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel has been captured twice. He’s also escaped from prison twice – the first time in 2001, hidden in a prison laundry truck, the second time in July 2015, through a complex tunnel system beneath his maximum-security cell. These are the sorts of stories and romanticized mythologies that surround Mexican drug cartels. Of course the reality is cartels are responsible for thousands of deaths and disappearances each year. Here are 10 shocking facts about Mexico’s drug cartels.
10. Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was the Hottest Halloween Costume in Mexico
Striped prison jumpers and a latex mask representing drug kingpin “El Chapo” was the hottest selling Halloween costume in Mexico in 2015. Diego Esponda, CEO of costume maker Caretas, said that company produced more than 2,600 “El Chapo” masks. The notorious Sinaloa cartel kingpin experienced a surge in popularity when he escaped from a maximum-security prison cell in July. It’s the second time Mexico’s most wanted man has broken out of prison. The U.S. government has since announced a $5 million award for information leading to his capture.
9. The Rise of Narcosubs
In order to out-plot and evade law enforcement, Mexican drug cartels are devising more ingenious ways of getting drugs across the border. The first known narcosubs were detected in 1993. These submersible vessels, many of which are 50 feet long and made out of fiberglass, are capable of trafficking cocaine by the ton; in 2015, a narcosub with over 8 tons of cocaine was seized. Drug officials estimate that 32 percent of the cocaine sent from South America to the United States is transported by narcosubs. These hard-to-detect vessels are a far cry from the high-speed cigarette boats used by drug runners in the 80s.
8. Elite Soldiers Turned Cartel Gunmen
The United States government considers Los Zetas the “most technologically advanced, sophisticated, and dangerous cartel in Mexico.” Why? Los Zetas is comprised of former soldiers from GAFE, an elite special-forces unit in Mexico. In 1999, the leader of the Gulf Cartel needed extra muscle. He reached out to an old friend who was a retired Mexican army lieutenant with connections to GAFE. The lieutenant then bribed 30 men to desert the army and provide muscle for the Gulf Cartel. In 2010, the elite soldiers broke from the Gulf Cartel and formed Los Zetas. Los Zetas has since expanded its territory to 11 Mexican states, making it the largest cartel in Mexico.
7. Texas Retailers Fuel Mexico’s Drug War
According to the Huffingting Post, in 2007 more than 1,100 guns found at Mexican cartel shooting scenes were traced back to Texas merchants, particularly those along the southern border region. In 2010, in the Mexican border town of Reynosa, federal police found 540 assault rifles, 165 grenades, tear gas launchers, sticks of dynamite, and over 500,000 rounds of ammunition. It was the largest seized weapons cache in Mexican history. It was later discovered that the majority of assault-rifles came from licensed Texas gun dealers – of the 383 guns that could be traced, 300 came from Texas.
6. Mexico has the Highest Kidnap Rate in the World
People are always disappearing in Mexico. Some are found in shallow graves, while others are never seen again; legend has it that a cartel hood named “The Cook” has dissolved over 300 victims in acid. An average of 70 people are abducted each month in Mexico. In 2013, Mexico saw the highest number of reported kidnappings since 1997 –there were 757 missing persons reports between January and June. Up to 30 percent of kidnapping victims are killed. Others are subjected to torture and savage treatment. Los Zetas is particularly brutal. In 1998, a henchman for the cartel nicknamed the “Ear Lopper” was arrested.
5. Patron Saint Jesus Malverde and Narcocorridos (Drug Ballads)
Jesus Malverde is the patron saint of drug traffickers. While the legendary mustachioed bandit isn’t recognized by the Catholic Church, he’s a Robin Hood-like figure who’s said to have stolen from the rich and given to the poor. (The idea of the drug kingpin as a benevolent bandit is common in narco-lore.) While Jesus Malverde’s story is sketchy, the Mexican police supposedly shot him in 1909; Malverde has since been romanticized as the spiritual protector of those involved in the drug trade. Narcocorridos tell stories about drug trafficking. Men are praised for their honor and bravery (as well as the number of people they’ve killed) and seen as defenders of the poor against an unjust government.
4. Nuevo Laredo is Home to the Bloodiest Highway in the World
In 2014, Nuevo Laredo spent a million dollars on a billboard campaign -“Laredo is Safe” –in an attempt to revamp the border town’s image. The campaign has been called the marketing equivalent of “I am not a crook.”
The central highway that runs through Nuevo Laredo from Mexico to the United States is one of the bloodiest in the world. The Sinaloa and Zetas cartels are in an ongoing turf war, as the majority of road cargo that passes between the U.S. and Mexico passes through Nuevo Laredo. May 2012 proved to be particularly bloody. On May 4th, nine bodies were found hanging from a bridge. On that same morning, the bodies of 14 men were found beheaded in a vehicle in Nuevo Laredo.
3. Tranquilandia was the Disneyland of Cocaine Production
Headed by Pablo Escobar, the Medellin Cartel supplied the U.S. with 84-90 percent of its cocaine in the 1970s and 80s. At the height of its power, it also controlled 80 percent of the global cocaine market. Some estimates suggest the cartel raked in $60 million per day. While the Medellin Cartel operated several drug processing facilities in Columbia, the most impressive was Tranquilandia.
Located deep in the remote jungle region of Caqueta, Columbia, Tranquilandia was the Disneyland of cocaine production. It featured 19 laboratories and eight airstrips. A heavily armed militia guarded the complex. Despite the remote location, Tranquilandia featured luxurious dormitories for its workers, several generators for electricity, and a constant supply of water from the Yari River. In March 1984, the DEA raided the facility, seizing seven airplanes and 13.8 tons of cocaine.
2. Officials Have Discovered Roughly 181 Illicit Passages Under the U.S-Mexico Border
Bootleggers and rumrunners have used underground passages to transport illegal contraband for ages. Mexican drug cartels –especially the Sinaloa cartel -have turned illicit underground tunnels into an art form. The Sinaloa cartel built the first cross-border narcotunnel in 1989. It was a short, narrow, “gopher hole,” barely large enough for a person to crawl through.
Today, Sinaloa’s narcotunnels are engineering marvels. Many passages reach as deep as seventy feet and include elevators, electric lights, ventilation ducts, and railway systems. They have cleverly disguised entry and exit ways; for example, a Sinaloa-owned house in a Mexican border town featured a water spigot that triggered a hydraulic system that lifted a billiard table revealing a ladder to an illicit supertunnel.
1. “El Chapo” Made Forbes Magazine’s List of the World’s Top Billionaires
Every year Forbes magazine publishes a list of the world’s top billionaires. Despite some newcomers, the composition is similar from year to year –Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, the Spanish retail magnate Amancio Ortego. In 2009, Forbes added Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to the list. El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel is said to control 25 percent of drug trafficking into the U.S., making it the most powerful international drug cartel in the world. “El Chapo” stayed on Forbes Magazine’s list of billionaires until 2012. According to senior wealth editor Luisa Kroll, “El Chapo” was dropped from the list because “Guzman’s family had grown, and an increasing chunk of money was going to protect them.” Forbes could no longer determine whether or not the drug kingpin was actually a billionaire.