Hector Berrellez, a retired Drug Enforcement Administration official, said the DEA task force he led at the time targeted Rafael Caro Quintero, Miguel Felix Gallardo and Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, the leaders of the Guadalajara drug cartel. At the time, he said, Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman worked for the Guadalajara cartel as a hit man.
Berrellez alleges that the vast wealth amassed by the Guadalajara cartel enabled Guzman’s drug empire to grow as quickly and extensively as it did. Forbes even listed Guzman as one of the richest and most powerful men in the world.
According to Forbes, “CEO of the Sinaloa cartel, ‘El Chapo’ is the world’s most powerful drug trafficker. The cartel is responsible for an estimated 25 (percent) of all illegal drugs that enter the U.S. via Mexico. Drug enforcement experts estimate, conservatively, that the cartel’s annual revenues may exceed $3 billion.”
Mexican navy marines captured the 56-year-old Guzman on Feb. 22 in Mazatlan, Mexico. Mexican officials said Guzman, the nephew of Mexican pioneer drug baron Pedro Aviles Perez, escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001 before he could be extradited to the United States, and was a fugitive last month.
“Our task force uncovered their financial assets,” Berrellez said. “Caro Quintero alone owned billions of dollars. Felix Gallardo and Fonseca Carrillo had fortunes that were just as incredible. We found their money and the financial institutions that they were using back then.”
“The Mexican government had the authority to go after their assets, and never did,” Berrellez said. “The U.S. government could not seize their assets because their money was in financial institutions in Luxembourg and Switzerland, which back then, did not have agreements in place with the U.S. to surrender their assets to us.”
Berrellez said it’s likely that “Chapo” Guzman benefited from the drug-trafficking fortunes of the Guadalajara cartel, and was able to use some of those assets to build and dramatically expand the Sinaloa drug cartel.
The U.S. government generally uses the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act) to target the financial assets of major drug-traffickers like Guzman. The act prohibits U.S. persons from conducting financial or commercial transactions, and freezes any assets such drug-traffickers may have under U.S. jurisdiction.
The U.S. drug “kingpin” designation was never extended to Felix Gallardo, founder of the Guadalajara cartel, or his associate Miguel Fonseca Carrillo, who is related to members of the Carrillo Fuentes (Juárez) drug cartel.
John Sullivan, spokesman for the U.S. Treasury Department, confirmed recently that neither Fonseca Carrillo or Felix Gallardo are not on the department’s list of Specially Designated Nationals, but was unable to explain why.
“I can’t really say anything beyond we cannot comment on folks we have not designated,” Sullivan said.
Berrellez said that after Caro Quintero, Fonseca Carrillo and Felix Gallardo were imprisoned in Mexico for “Kiki’s” murder, the kingpins divided up the Guadalajara drug cartel by “plazas” (regions), and parceled them out to several drug-traffickers. “Chapo” Guzman, who was a member of the drug “Federation,” was among them.
The “Federation” was a loose coalition of drug-trafficking organizations, including the Carrillo Fuentes drug cartel, which had agreed to stay out of each other’s way. The cooperation ended when the increasing competition led to betrayals and personal revenge murders, Berrellez said.
“Chapo Guzman went crazy with brutal murders and mutilations after the others killed two of his sons,” Berrellez said. “He’s the one who started all that mess.”
Nearly 11,000 people were killed in Juárez alone during the bitter conflict between Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel and the Carrillo Fuentes cartel, officials said. This period lasted roughly from 2007 to 2013.
Guzman, the Carrillo Fuentes clan and Caro Quintero all smuggled drugs through the Juárez-El Paso corridor, U.S. drug investigators said.
Berrellez said Guzman’s access to part or all of the original Guadalajara drug cartel’s assets also explains how Guzman was able to buy up tons of cocaine from South American suppliers to transport and sell in the United States, and eventually to other markets in Europe and Asia.
Phil Jordan, a retired DEA official and ex-director of the El Paso Intelligence Center, compared the money that Caro Quintero had amassed from drug-trafficking to a giant IRA (Individual Retirement Arrangement) that’s sitting in a bank and is continuing to generate wealth for the drug lord. It may even have been reinvested in the drug trade, he said.
Jordan said Guzman also was able to consult with his experienced mentors, who already were trafficking tons of cocaine and other drugs into the United States.
Tosh Plumlee, a former CIA contract pilot in the Las Cruces, N.M. area, who was familiar with Caro Quintero’s organization, said he’s been trying for years for the U.S. government to pay some attention to the drug cartel’s assets.
“I’ve said that the proof of the pudding in Chapo Guzman’s capture lies in whether his assets are seized and he is extradited to the United States,” Berrellez said.
“We also shouldn’t rule out that Caro Quintero is in charge as a ‘jefe de jefes’ (boss of bosses). I know this from investigating these people for 11 years, and from what my sources in the U.S. and Mexico are telling me now.”
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has stated in media interviews that Guzman likely will face charges in the Mexican court system before he is ever extradited to the United States, ruling out a rapid extradition for the legendary capo. Guzman has been indicted on drug-related charges in several U.S. federal jurisdictions, including in El Paso.
Caro Quintero was released from a Mexican prison on a technicality late last year, after serving 28 years out of a 40-year sentence for his role in Camarena’s murder. His release created a scandal in U.S. law enforcement circles, and it was suspected that the same legal maneuver would be used to also release Fonseca Carrillo and Felix Gallardo from prison.
The U.S. government announced a $5 million reward for the capture of Caro Quintero, who is considered a fugitive.