El Chapo: Debunking Myths to Interrogate the Drug War

"I want the reader to understand that this is bigger than El Chapo and it's bigger than drugs," says Noah Hurowitz of his new book.

July 30, 2021

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In El Chapo, journalist Noah Hurowitz chronicles the life of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera and the evolution of the drug trade in Mexico and the United States. Hurowitz relied on court documents and first-hand reporting to reconstruct El Chapo’s rise and the U.S. and Mexican enforcement efforts to bring him down. The book also tells the story of misguided drug enforcement policies, a decade and a half after Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a “war” on drug cartels. The United States has provided billions of dollars in security assistance, yet the extradition and prosecution of “kingpins” like El Chapo has failed to put a dent in the flow of drugs. Levels of violent crime in Mexico-with over 30,000 murders a year-have soared during this time. NACLA web editor Martha Pskowski spoke to Hurowitz about his book.

MP: There are a lot of books, podcasts, and Netflix series already on El Chapo and the drug war. Why did you decide to write this book and what did you hope to contribute on top of what's already out there?

NH: I was approached about writing this book. I don't know if I would have necessarily pitched a book about El Chapo. But I thought long and hard about whether I should do it. I had been covering the Chapo trial, day in and day out, in Brooklyn from November 2018 to February 2019. But before that I wasn't a huge expert on El Chapo. And I'm also a gringo from Brooklyn. So, I did have some doubts: whether I was the person to do it, or the utility of focusing on just an individual, particularly an individual who had been so thoroughly covered throughout many areas of media.

The reason that I eventually decided to do it was this: the American attention span is short and it's hard to engage readers with issues outside of the United States. So, when you are presented with something that does engage readers, I think it's an opportunity. And there is a great amount of interest, for better or worse, in El Chapo. He is an interesting guy. He has a wild story. Media depictions want a face to something; they want a juicy individual story. El Chapo provides that.

I saw that as an opportunity to confront and hopefully debunk some of the myths that have popped up around El Chapo. Most importantly, I wanted to use his story as an entry point for readers to understand the social, historical, economic, and material structures that led to his rise and that also continue to affect the trajectory of the drug war in Mexico and in the United States.

MP: The book opens with a scene at the Malverde shrine in Culiacan. Can you tell me why you start with that scene and what does it say about El Chapo and the culture of the drug war in Sinaloa?

NH: In Sinaloa, there's this legendary folk hero named Jesús Malverde. The story is he was an outlaw bandit in the late 1800s, early 1900s, under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Robbing the rich, giving to the poor. Eventually he was captured and killed, hanged, and thrown in an unmarked grave. There was this sort of cult following that sprung up around Jesús Malverde.

Now there's a shrine to Malverde in Culiacán and it's become closely linked with the narco-culture of northwestern Mexico. You can't want a single documentary about Sinaloa without seemingly required B-roll footage of the shrine. I spent a lot of time in Culiacan in 2019 and the only other time I ran into a gringo was at the Malverde shrine, when I ran into a camera crew.

I found it really interesting this comparison between this rebellious, anti-establishment bandit saint and a drug trafficker. I wanted to explore that. What I found, thanks to scholarship by the likes of Luis Astorga and Benjamin Smith, was that more recently the social relation of drug traffickers in Sinaloa is not necessarily one of outlaws. The role that drug traffickers have historically and currently play in Sinaloa has been much more complex and much more entangled with the State.

I wanted to open with the comparison between El Chapo and Malverde and then pull the rug out and show that the drug trade in Sinaloa developed as a pillar of stability for the emerging regime in Mexico City. At the end of the revolution, Mexico was badly fractured, there were a lot of local warlords. One of the ways that the PRI in Mexico City ensured stability and loyalty was working with local power brokers to keep peasants in line, to enforce the law. In Sinaloa, where the drug trade was increasingly an economic engine, drug traffickers often played a very important role.

There was a lot of tumult in Sinaloa in the 1940s under Lázaro Cárdenas. He was pushing for land reform and there was a lot of violence between collectivists like residents of ejidos and ranchers and agribusiness.

One of the ways they purchased stability was allowing the drug trade to flourish, which brought inflated wages to peasants and helped stave off further agitation for land reform, while also pumping a lot of money into the pockets of both intermediary drug traffickers and the elite of Sinaloa who profited from the drug trade. With that history in mind, I don't see drug traffickers so much as outlaws as collaborators with the State.

MP: One thing I enjoy about the book is that you're very direct about the filters that you're getting information through as a foreign reporter. You’re thinking critically about why people might tell you what they're telling you. With all those caveats, why was it so important for you to go report in Culiacán and visit La Tuna where Chapo is from? What did you get out of that in-person reporting?

NH: I relied a great deal on the previous reporting of Mexican journalists who work under the most difficult conditions imaginable. Genuinely some of the bravest people I've ever met. It was very important for me to both be clear where I was sort of building off previous scholarship, but also by doing original reporting. It was important for me to go to this place, to go to Culiacán, to be able to describe to readers, but also to understand it myself.

I went three times to La Tuna, this tiny little village where El Chapo was born, four or five hours drive from Culiacan. To go there and see how people live and to hear from people about how they lived back then, it felt like that was the best way for me to understand where El Chapo came from.

I tried to steer the conversations to stuff that had less to do personally with El Chapo and more to do with an understanding of the history of the place. What is the collective memory of military incursions and anti-drug operations in the area? I thought that the best way to understand El Chapo was to understand where he came from and the social and material realities that lead someone to get involved with the drug trade and succeed in the drug trade.

MP: Could you talk more about your reporting process, the sourcing, and the barriers of how to write about someone you don't have direct access to?

NH: It's funny. I and the other reporters who covered the trial day in and day out probably had more facetime with El Chapo than virtually any other reporters. That helped to get a sense of him as a person. But it wasn't nearly enough, obviously, because I couldn't interview him. It required this sort of write-around. It required pulling a lot of information from a lot of different places. A lot of that information was from testimony at trial.

There were around 40 witnesses at trial and a dozen were cooperating witnesses, so they had gotten in some trouble because they were drug traffickers. They told us a lot of fascinating information. We had Miguel Ángel Martínez, a pilot for El Chapo in the late '80s who became a very close aid to him in the early '90s and was able to tell us so much about his early days. And there was testimony from Vincentillo Zambada, the son of El Chapo's partner, El Mayo Zambada. All of these people were able to give us so much insight and anecdotes about their direct interactions with El Chapo over the years. That included a lot of dialogue, a lot of personal recollections of the ways they engaged with him. And I used a lot of that. I note very clearly in the end notes of the book where it's from and who said it.

But a lot of the dialogue is impossible to independently verify. But it was said under threat of perjury in federal court. When I was able to match that with other pieces of information that made it make sense to me, I felt good using it. There was a story that this one witness related about him witnessing El Chapo beat someone to death. I wrote about it at the time for Rolling Stone, but I ended up not using it in the book because it was an accusation of murder. That's a very serious allegation and El Chapo wasn't convicted of murder. It's not that I doubt that he did that, but I had never heard many other depictions of El Chapo as being hyper-violent in person, so I didn't feel necessarily that I could 100 percent stand behind that.

There were other bits of testimony that fit with the larger picture. We heard from Pedro Flores, who was a Mexican-American drug trafficker from Chicago. Him and his twin brother were huge wholesalers of cocaine and heroin in the Midwest in the early 2000s. They ended up going to Mexico and interacting with El Chapo quite a bit. Their depictions of him, as on one hand a chill guy who would shoot the shit and chat, while also ordering violence, fit with other testimony. It fit with his demeanor in recorded phone calls that were intercepted by the FBI, in recorded text messages also intercepted by the FBI. When an anecdote or a depiction at trial fit with the larger constellation of information that I had about El Chapo, I felt better about using it. I think that there are probably some purists out there who would not use some of that information and I understand that.

In the same token, I tried to use as little as possible contemporaneous news stories. I spent a lot of time in the historical archive in Culiacán looking at news articles from various times in the last several decades. I was able to use that to paint a picture, rather than necessarily citing individual articles as fact.

MP: With reporting on the drug trade or drug-related violence, what would you suggest to reporters to avoid falling into the overly simplistic narratives or feeding into a narrative that doesn't necessarily have factual backing?

NH: It requires a tremendous amount of research and critical thinking and understanding of the reality on the ground and the history of what has been happening in a certain place. I think that journalists over-rely on law enforcement sources to tell them about the drug trade. There's a significant portion of my book that is based on my interviews with law enforcement sources. But what they're telling me about is law enforcement investigations. They're telling me about the inside story of this operation to capture El Chapo.

I don't really trust cops to tell me about the drug trade because they often don't know much about it. If you have a relationship or if they're willing to talk, they might want to answer you, but they often don't know about the motivations of drug traffickers, the sort of economics of drug trafficking.

In the United States, I see an over-reliance on law enforcement sources across all sorts of criminal justice reporting. When we see there's a drug seizure in Ohio and a local sheriff says it’s cartel-linked, for example. And then suddenly cartel-linked, that's just fact. In Mexico, it's hard to get sources. I see people talking to the same retired DEA agents again and again. They've been retired ten years. They don't know necessarily what's happening on the ground now.

You have to ask people about what they know. If I want to know about the drug trade, I'm going to talk to drug traffickers. If I want to know about law enforcement operations, I'm going to talk to cops.

El Chapo does not seem to be the most personally violent guy. Again and again, I would find these stories of someone messing up really bad and El Chapo would relocate them or let them live. And then I hear stories about, “Oh, yeah, when El Chapo would dig a tunnel under the border, he would hire an entire crew of workers and then he'd kill them all to keep them silent.” And that just doesn't make sense to me based on everything else we know about him. For all of the violence tied to El Chapo, for all of his willingness to shed blood, I don't think he was necessarily so evil and cold-blooded as to commit a massacre like that. That's not say he wasn't tied to other massacres.

That's not to say he was a good guy. But if you have this assumption about someone, even someone as notorious and bad and deserving of assumptions of El Chapo, it's really easy to believe anything you hear. And I tried really hard to not believe everything I heard. I would just caution reporters in all coverage, but particularly something so muddy and obscured as the drug war, to just check everything and compare everything to other pieces of information.

MP: The core argument of your book, the point you close on, is that the War on Drugs has often been portrayed as a failure: drugs are still coming into the United States, violence is incredibly high in Mexico. But you argue the Drug War is not in fact a failure. Can you elaborate on that?

NH: I think that there has been a lot of progress in the past several years, the past decade, toward a more humane drug policy. We're seeing marijuana being legalized pretty much everywhere in the United States. It is on the verge of legalization in Mexico. But at the same time, the violence keeps getting worse. There keep being these failed attempts, or even successful attempts, to arrest so-called kingpins and extradite them to the United States. Even as we're starting to see some progress in terms of legalization, we're seeing more overdose deaths than ever in the United States and more violence than ever in Mexico.

But as we creep forward in a more humane view drugs and the drug trade, I've heard a mainstreaming of this idea that the War on Drugs is absurd and is never going to work and is a failure. And I understand that. I get that. But I think it's a misinterpretation of the War on Drugs.

I say that the War on Drugs is actually a pretty resounding success because you have to look at the stated goals versus what's actually being pursued. In my book, I talk about this episode in 1969 where the Nixon administration essentially shut down the border between Mexico and the United States under the guise of contraband searches. They said, we're going to start searching every car that comes into the US from Mexico, which is impossible. Traffic backed up for hours at every port of entry for 21 days. And it ended with a concession from the Mexican government of, yes, OK, fine, we'll take anti-drug policy more seriously.

Seven years later, G. Gordon Liddy, one of Nixon's hatchet men who became famous with Watergate, wrote in his memoir that people have called Operation Intercept a failure, but that's just because they didn't know the true goal. The true goal of Operation Intercept was diplomatic extortion, pure and simple. Their goal was to get Mexico City in line. And it worked. And the other fallout from Intercept is that it fundamentally and forever changed the character of the US border. There had been a lot more back and forth travel from northern Mexico into the Southwestern United States, Texas, the whole borderlands. That was sort of the start of this more solid, militarized border that we now have today.

Operation Intercept helped solidify the border in a way that worked for the United States, worked for—for lack of a better word—the forces of capital, and harmed pretty much everyone else living there. So, no, Operation Intercept wasn't a failure, unless you're naive enough to accept its stated goals.

With the War on Drugs, I would say this is the same. There is a constellation of overlapping and competing interests. There are people, institutions, law enforcement agencies, and private companies that have a vested interest in certain aspects of the War on Drugs continuing. Weapons manufacturers who sell weapons to gun stores on the border have a vested interest in laws remaining lax enough that weapons can be bought in Texas and brought across the border to fuel the violence in Mexico. I'm not saying that those arms manufacturers are cheering every time there's a surge in violence—I hope not—but they have a vested interest in not doing anything and letting violence continue.

And the DEA: their budget when they were founded in 1973 was $65 million and now it's somewhere north of a billion. I can't imagine it going down. There's this mission creep. Generally, law enforcement agencies do not give up power, they do not give up budget. They have a vested interest, even though every aspect of the War on Drugs has on its stated goal been an abject failure, they're going to keep doing it because how can they stop? It's so bad now, how can they stop now?

In Mexico, similarly, ever since 2006 when Felipe Calderón sent in the military in Juárez and Tijuana and elsewhere, it’s a campaign that has just exponentially made Mexico a worse, more violent place. It has empowered the military. It has empowered federal police officials who are not going to be happy about anything that would force them to give up power. For all those different people and institutions and agencies that I mentioned, the War on Drugs had been going great for them.

For individuals in those agencies, I think there are people in the DEA, people in the Mexican army and the Mexican marines and the PGR, the FGR now, who genuinely believe in what they're doing. But I don't care about individuals in that sense when we're talking about something so big and so horrific. This is a structural issue, this is an institutional issue. We can't begin to untangle this mess without having a material understanding of who is perpetuating this violence and who is benefiting from it. I want the reader to understand that this is bigger than El Chapo and it's bigger than drugs. It's all part of this larger superstructure. The only way toward a more just and peaceful and sustainable and dignified future is beginning to untangle these interests and these motivations.

MP: What would you recommend for people who want to learn more?

NH: First, I recommend you read my book! But I wouldn't have been able to write the book that I wrote without the work and scholarship of so many people. If you want to understand the economic ulterior motives of the drug war, I highly recommend the work of [NACLA board member] Dawn Paley. Her book, Drug War Capitalism is fantastic. If you want to understand the way the drug war is used as a tool of counterinsurgency, look up the work of Alexander Aviña.

If you want to understand the role drug traffickers in play in Sinaloa, Benjamin Smith has done really good writing about that, as has the Mexican sociologist Luis Astorga. There's a collective of researchers called Noria Mexico that are doing fantastic work looking at the hyper-local power dynamics of the drug trade. I would not have been able to write this book without all these people.

Noah Hurowitz is a journalist based in New York City. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, the Columbia Journalism Review, DNAinfo, and many more. El Chapo is his first book.

Martha Pskowski is NACLA's web editor. As a freelance journalist, she reports on the environment, labor, and agriculture. She holds a degree in Journalism and Latin American Studies from New York University.

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