Written by Alan Feuer
In his 30-year career as one of Mexico’s wiliest and most successful drug lords, Joaquín Guzmán Loera — better known as El Chapo — made so much money selling drugs that he once owned a pair of yachts, a fleet of Learjets and a private zoo with tigers, crocodiles and panthers. His fortune was vast enough that he was named to Forbes magazine’s annual list of billionaires four times.
But now the federal prosecutors who convicted Guzmán at his trial this winter in New York have put an actual price tag on his earnings, calculating the amount down to the dollar. And they want him to pay it back.
Late last week, the prosecutors filed a forfeiture request against the kingpin, laying out in remarkable detail how he had transformed staggering quantities of drugs into equally staggering profits over the years.
From the early 1990s until his arrest in 2016, the prosecutors said, Guzmán handled nearly 600,000 kilograms of cocaine (worth more than $11 billion), 200 kilograms of heroin (worth more than $11 million) and at least 420,000 kilograms of marijuana (worth about $846 million.)
Total bill due: $12,666,181,704.
As astonishing as these figures seem to be, the prosecutors noted that they were only a “conservative” estimate of the still unknown — and perhaps unknowable — total amount of drugs that Guzmán may have smuggled during his lucrative life of crime.
In their 12-page forfeiture document, prosecutors said they had arrived at the numbers by adding up all the narcotics provided to Guzmán by only a few of his many suppliers: Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía, Jorge Cifuentes-Villa and Luis Caicedo, known as “Don Lucho.”
Both Ramírez and Cifuentes testified against Guzmán at his trial to devastating effect. But although Caicedo secretly pleaded guilty to drug charges in Brooklyn — and thus was theoretically available to testify — he never appeared on the witness stand.
Instead of using his testimony, the prosecutors included in their forfeiture filing a sworn statement from his chief financial officer, José Yusti Llano, who offered new details on the innovative ways in which Guzmán, and others in the Sinaloa drug cartel, had paid Caicedo.
According to the statement, the Caicedo organization kept an inventory of shipping containers in a warehouse in Mexico City owned by “seemingly legitimate companies.” When Guzmán and his allies were ready to pay for their cocaine, the statement said, they would pack the containers with as much as $5 million in cash and send them to Colombia.
At this point, it remains unclear how much, if anything, of the $12.7 billion that the government is seeking from Guzmán will ultimately be recouped.
Prosecutors have never publicly revealed if they know where he keeps his assets, and there was little trial testimony on the subject, other than a few passing mentions of houses and apartments in Mexico filled with as much as $30 million at a time.
As the forfeiture filing itself suggested, Guzmán was a skilled money launderer. He hid some of his profits in the banking system, some in an insurance company run by an associate and some in debit cards issued by a firm in Colombia called Monodeaux.
The kingpin’s future earnings will be severely limited given that he will soon head to prison for the rest of his life. The forfeiture request was filed as part of his sentencing, which is scheduled to take place in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn on July 17. Guzmán remains in custody in the high-security wing of Manhattan’s federal jail.
On July 3, Judge Brian M. Cogan, who has handled the case from its beginning, denied a motion by Guzmán’s lawyers for a new trial. That motion followed the publication of an article by Vice Media, a few days after the conviction, in which one of the anonymous jurors told a Vice reporter that several members of the panel had read media accounts about the trial, against the judge’s orders. The juror also claimed that the panelists had lied to Cogan when he had asked them if they had followed his instructions.
Because of the severity of his crimes, Guzmán faces a mandatory term of life in prison, meaning there will not be many lingering questions when he appears in court to have his sentence handed down. But there may still be some drama.
During the trial, the kingpin declined to testify on his own behalf. But like all defendants, he has the right to speak at his sentencing.
Should he do so, it would provide him with his biggest forum yet to describe his life — and possibly his crimes.