Anunciaba que Ismael Zambada deseaba conversar conmigo. No agregaba una palabra. Caminamos en seguida un rato largo hasta detenernos ante una fachada color claro. Hambrientos, el mensajero y yo salimos a la calle para comer, beber lo que fuera y estirar las piernas. Volvimos a la casa desolada ya noche. Las horas siguientes transcurrieron entre las cuatro paredes ya conocidas.
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The subject did not ask for any changes. My head is swimming, labeling TracPhones burners , one per contact, one per day, destroy, burn, buy, balancing levels of encryption, mirroring through Blackphones, anonymous e-mail addresses, unsent messages accessed in draft form.
Do they still make laptops? No fucking idea! Another gorgeous fall day in New York City. The streets are abuzz with the lights and sirens of diplomatic movement, heads of state, U. General Assembly. Pope Francis blazed a trail and left town two days before. Regis Hotel with my colleague and brother in arms, Espinoza. Espinoza and I have traveled many roads together, but none as unpredictable as the one we are now approaching.
Espinoza is the owl who flies among falcons. His bald head demands your attention to his twinkling eyes. We whisper to each other in code. We sit within quietude of fortified walls that are old New York hotel construction, when walls were walls, and telephones were usable without a Ph. As we exit onto 55th Street, the sidewalk is lined with the armored SUVs that will transport the president of Mexico to the General Assembly.
Paradoxical indeed, as one among his detail asks if I will take a selfie with him. Flash frame: myself and a six-foot, ear-pieced Mexican security operator. Flash frame: Why is this a paradox? It is not he who necessitated weeks of clandestine planning. And while I was surfing the waves of Malibu at age nine, he was already working in the marijuana and poppy fields of the remote mountains of Sinaloa, Mexico.
Today, he runs the biggest international drug cartel the world has ever known, exceeding even that of Pablo Escobar. He shops and ships by some estimates more than half of all the cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana that come into the United States. They call him El Chapo. Since he joined the drug trade as a teenager, Chapo swiftly rose through the ranks, building an almost mythic reputation: First, as a cold pragmatist known to deliver a single shot to the head for any mistakes made in a shipment, and later, as he began to establish the Sinaloa cartel, as a Robin Hood-like figure who provided much-needed services in the Sinaloa mountains, funding everything from food and roads to medical relief.
By the time of his second escape from federal prison, he had become a figure entrenched in Mexican folklore. In , El Chapo dug the first subterranean passage beneath the border from Tijuana to San Diego, and pioneered the use of tunnels to transport his products and to evade capture. I will discover that his already accomplished engineers had been flown to Germany last year for three months of extensive additional training necessary to deal with the low-lying water table beneath the prison.
It was this president of Mexico who had agreed to see us. I take no pride in keeping secrets that may be perceived as protecting criminals, nor do I have any gloating arrogance at posing for selfies with unknowing security men.
Everything I say to everyone must be true. As true as it is compartmentalized. The trust that El Chapo had extended to us was not to be fucked with. This will be the first interview El Chapo had ever granted outside an interrogation room, leaving me no precedent by which to measure the hazards.
I was highly aware of committed DEA and other law-enforcement officers and soldiers, both Mexican and American, who had lost their lives executing the policies of the War on Drugs. The families decimated, and institutions corrupted.
Not since Osama bin Laden has the pursuit of a fugitive so occupied the public imagination. What of the tens of thousands of sick and suffering chemically addicted Americans, barbarically imprisoned for the crime of their illness? Locked down in facilities where unspeakable acts of dehumanization and violence are inescapable, and murder a looming threat.
Or, is that a distinction for the passive self-righteous? There is little dispute that the War on Drugs has failed: as many as 27, drug-related homicides in Mexico alone in a single year, and opiate addiction on the rise in the U. Perhaps in the tunnel vision of our puritanical and prosecutorial culture that has designed the War on Drugs, we have similarly lost sight of practice, and given over our souls to theory. And lost with it, any possible vision of reform, or recognition of the proven benefits in so many other countries achieved through the regulated legalization of recreational drugs.
Now on 50th Street, Espinoza and I enter the Japanese restaurant. El Alto sits alone in a quiet corner, beneath a slow-turning ceiling fan that circulates the scent of raw fish.
Espinoza, speaking in Spanish, fills him in on our plans and itinerary. El Alto listens intently, squeezing edamame beans one at a time between his teeth.
We considered this meeting our point of no return. We were either all in, or we would abandon the journey. We had weighed the risks, but I felt confident and said so.
Places where what can go wrong will go wrong, had gone wrong, and yet in the end, had delivered me in one piece with a deepening situational awareness though not a perfect science of available cautions within the design in chaos.
It was agreed that I would go to L. We ordered sake and indulged the kind of operating-room humor that might displace our imperfectly scientific concerns. She stated that in a question of trust between governments and cartels, hers would go to El Chapo. Imagine trafficking with corrupt politicians instead of women and children who end up as slaves. Come on, Don!
You would be the hero of heroes. You know how to. Life is a business and the only thing that changes is the merchandise. It can be heard in the narco corrido ballads so popular throughout the country. But her views, unlike those folkloric lionizations, are rather a continuity of her history of brave expression and optimistic dreams for her homeland. She had been outspoken on politics, sex and religion and is among the courageous independent spirits that democracies are built to protect and cannot exist without.
Her courage is further demonstrated in her willingness to be named in this article. There are both brutal and corrupt forces within the Mexican government who oppose her and indeed, according to Kate, high-ranking officials have responded to her public statement with private intimidations , and hence, a responsibility of the greater public to shepherd those who make their voices heard. It perhaps should have come as no surprise that this homegrown icon of entertainment would catch the interest of a singular fan and fugitive from Sinaloa.
She nervously offered her address, but with the gypsy movements of an actress, the flowers did not find her. With his dramatic capture, and, perhaps, the illusion of safe dealings now that El Chapo was locked up, the gringos were scrambling to tell his story.
The seed was planted, and El Chapo, awakened to the prospect, made plans of his own. He was interested in seeing the story of his life told on film, but would entrust its telling only to Kate.
The same lawyer again tracked her down, this time through the Mexican equivalent of the Screen Actors Guild, and the imprisoned drug lord and the actress began to correspond in handwritten letters and BBM messages. It was at a social event in Los Angeles when Kate met Espinoza.
She learned he was well connected to financial sources, including those that funded film projects, and she proposed a partnership to make a film about El Chapo. This was when Espinoza included our mutual colleague and friend El Alto. I learned of their intention to make the film, but I did not know Kate or have any involvement with the project. Then came July The world, and particularly Mexico and the United States, was up in arms. How could this happen?! We met in the courtyard of a boutique hotel in Paris in late August.
He told me about Kate and that she had been intermittently receiving contact from Chapo even after the escape. It was then that I posed the idea of a magazine story.
At a Santa Monica restaurant, I made my case, and Kate agreed to make the bridge, sending our names for vetting across the border. When word came back a week or so later that Chapo had indeed agreed to meet with us, I called Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone. Myself, Espinoza and El Alto were given the assignment. It had been a month in the planning by the time Espinoza and I were breathing the New York air that late-September day on 55th Street.
Upon landing, a hotel driver takes us by minivan to the hotel we had been instructed to book. Suspicious of every living or inanimate thing, I scan cars and drivers, mothers papoosing infants, grandmothers, peasants on the street, building tops, curtained windows. I search the skies for helicopters. There is no question in my mind but that the DEA and the Mexican government are tracking our movements. From the moment Kate had gone out on a limb with her tweet of January through the beginning of our encrypted negotiations to meet El Chapo, I had been bewildered by his willingness to risk our visit.
If Kate was being surveilled, so must those named on any shared flight manifest. I see no spying eyes, but I assume they are there. Through the windshield as we approach the hotel, I see a casually dressed man in his forties appear on the sidewalk, simultaneously directing our driver to the entryway while dialing a number on his cellphone.
We grab our bags and exit the minivan. Almost immediately, the traffic around the designated pickup point diminishes. Out of my view, someone is blocking the neighboring streets. Alonzo asks us to surrender our electronics and leave them behind — cellphones, computers, etc. I had left mine in Los Angeles, anticipating this requirement. My colleagues surrender theirs to the hotel desk.
We are whisked into the vehicles. Alonzo rides shotgun, my colleagues and I in the back.
“No disparé a los Guzmán y soy amigo del ‘Mayo’ Zambada”: Dámaso
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