El Chapo's Narco Mafia, and Where Sean Penn Got It Wrong; Fiction Has Accustomed Us to the Idea of Mafiosi as Criminal Animals, Mostly Uneducated. That's Never Been the Case

By Saviano, Roberto | Newsweek, February 26, 2016 | Go to article overview

El Chapo's Narco Mafia, and Where Sean Penn Got It Wrong; Fiction Has Accustomed Us to the Idea of Mafiosi as Criminal Animals, Mostly Uneducated. That's Never Been the Case


Saviano, Roberto, Newsweek


Byline: Roberto Saviano

A video showing the hideout of Joaquin Guzman Loera (aka "El Chapo"), filmed October 6 by the Mexican navy and broadcast by the Mexican newspaper

El Universal, is incredible for its details. Films shot by law enforcement in the hideouts of mafia bosses are usually very similar--there's great excitement, even when, as on this occasion, security forces suspect that the boss and those who helped him while he was on the run are long gone. There's the care taken not to touch anything: That's why they usually enter with video cameras rolling, so that everything is documented; so that nothing, even the smallest clue, can be removed or misplaced. You can always hear the breath of the person behind the camera, who is usually filming with one hand and holding his weapon with the other.

The video you can watch above of the unsuccessful raid on El Chapo's hideout three months before his capture opens with an aerial shot of Las Piedrosas, a town in the Mexican mountain range called Sierra Madre Occidental. Then it cuts to the events on the ground: Armed men come out of a helicopter, hunting for something. When they get inside a one-story building in the middle of a clearing, we can see a spartan kitchen, spartan like the rest of the dwelling. And then a room with raw plaster walls, and a clothes rack with brightly colored shirts, a dozen of them. The first, closest to the door, seems to be the exact one El Chapo had worn only four days earlier, during an interview with actor Sean Penn for Rolling Stone. (The brand is Barabas.) The flat-screen TV on the wall, along with the shirts, seems surreal in such simple surroundings.

And then we see two beds made of concrete, one of which is covered with a dark sheet. On that bed, there is a pale duvet, a blue backpack, some toilet paper and my book about the global drug trade: ZeroZeroZero, a significant part of which is devoted to Mexico and, therefore, to El Chapo. To his rise, to his business endeavors and to his spectacular criminal career, but also to his cartel's internal struggles and to the need for a successor.

El Chapo's prison breakouts don't surprise me as much as his arrests, which seem to owe more to the internal demands of the Sinaloa cartel than to the investigative work of the Mexican police. In the past few years, while the boss has been in and out of prison, the cartel hasn't suffered significant upheaval because in its upper ranks a strong, unyielding and much more discreet leader remained: Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, the brain and, most likely, new leader of the organization. The command certainly will not be passed on to El Chapo's sons, Ivan Archivaldo and Jesos Alfredo, who seem to be victims of exhibitionism with no economic vision, traits that are a poor fit for a mafia boss. Fond of luxury, nice cars and beautiful women, they use social media to send threatening messages to the government and to express their blustering desire to show off. However, they appear to have more followers on Twitter than in the organization.

In this context, El Chapo's arrests and escapes seem like a theatrical spectacle, the plot of which we must strive to interpret beyond the government's Twitter proclamations.

When El Chapo was captured in January and the October video was released, I was in Italy, where I am guarded at all times because of threats to my life over my first book, Gomorrah, about the Italian Mafia. Italy's Carabinieri (military police), who keep close track of anything that involves my security, woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me about the film.

I admit that my first reaction was surprise. Was El Chapo in such a hurry to get away that he didn't touch anything, or did he want to leave clues behind? I didn't wonder about it much, but I've heard a great range of hypotheses about why my book was there. One theory concerns my appearance on Mexican TV: In interviews after El Chapo's previous capture in February 2014, I had pointed out the pressing need to extradite him to the United States. …

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