December 12, 2015 – Outside of Ojinaga, Mexico
Joaquin Guzman Loera, “El Chapo,” and his behemoth of a bodyguard were running full tilt through a forest. Two weeks had passed since Guzman escaped from the so-called “escape proof” Altiplano prison. Not far away, a bevy of police and Federales were closing in on him. Despite his precarious situation, Guzman was upbeat, almost giddy. He was free, and if things went according to plan, he’d never set foot in prison again. The idea that in the not-so-distant future he’d be recaptured, tried and convicted in a place called “Brooklyn,” and then spend the rest of his life in a nine by twelve cell, never occurred to him.
The men exited the forest to the outskirts of an open field. From the bellowing and snorting in the distance and the unmistakable odor pervading the air, the men knew that they were somewhere on the grounds of a cattle ranch. But where? As they walked through rivulets of water and patches of mud caused by an unrelenting downpour, they saw a faint light in the distance, which they followed to a modest house. When the duo reached its front door, Guzman nodded, and his bodyguard pounded it with his fist and then stepped aside. Guzman didn’t know who occupied the house, nor did he care. He was being pursued and needed to hide. If they didn’t help him, he’d kill them. Time was not on his side, however. He was only a half an hour ahead of his pursuers. Large helicopters were already overhead and directing thick beams from their searchlights to the ground below.
When the door opened, Guzman saw a tall, broad-shouldered man who looked to be in his early thirties. The man’s rugged good looks reminded Guzman of the “Marlboro Man,” the iconic cowboy figure once used by Philip Morris to promote Marlboros. Before he could speak, Guzman said, “I assume you know who I am.” The man nodded.
“I need you to hide me and my bodyguard. I’ll make it worth your while.”
The man replied, “No need. I’d be pleased to help you. Come in. I’m Don Chula.”
Chula extended his hand, but Guzman didn’t take it, opting instead to walk past him to survey the interior of the house. What he saw was not encouraging. There was no place to hide. A few pieces of furniture distinguished the living room, spare and small. A modest Christmas tree bearing a few lights stood in one corner. The kitchen was only 10 by 12. As he walked further into the house, a beautiful woman emerged from a bedroom, and without regard for who Guzman was and with no sign of fear, put a finger to her lips and said in a low voice, “I just put our daughter, Isabella, to sleep; no unnecessary noise, please.”
Chula’s hospitable reaction was not surprising to Guzman. People either admired or feared him. Either way, he always got what he wanted. Without acknowledging the woman, Guzman said, “We have very little time. Very soon, there will be a small army here searching for me before they move on. So, the hiding place for me and my man needs to be perfect. I don’t think your house will work.”
Chula didn’t hesitate. He put on a rain poncho and handed ponchos to Guzman and his bodyguard. “I know just the place. Follow me.” The trio rode in a jeep for about two miles until they came upon a fire pit about the size of an Olympic swimming pool. Two hundred dead steers filled the pit. Guzman had experienced the odor of death many times, but nothing compared to this. His eyes stung, and he winced.
“What’s this? Guzman asked.
“It’s acute pneumonia in adult cattle. We couldn’t save these steers and we’ll incinerate them when the rain stops.” Chula set a ladder into the pit and started climbing down. “Follow me,” he said. To the bodyguard, he instructed, “Throw down those plastic tarps and also that industrial stapler on the table next to the tarps.”
As Chula stood atop the dead steers, he could see Guzman trying to cope with the stench. The sight amused him, but he knew that he dare not laugh. “I know,” he said. “It’s about the worst smell imaginable.”
He walked over to one bloated steer and lifted part of its skin as if he was raising a curtain. “It’s mostly hollow inside because we disembowel the steers before we incinerate them. Get in and we’ll staple them up. You can wrap yourself up with the tarp. I’ll punch two small holes so you can breathe.”
Guzman was uncomfortable with Chula’s suggestion, not because of the odor or the gruesome prospect of being in the hollow of a dead steer, but because he was relying on the trustworthiness of a total stranger who, by the look of his modest ranch house, could have used the ten-million-peso reward offered for his capture. He had little choice, however. Beams from three low-flying helicopters passed within fifty yards of them, prompting him to curl up in the steer. His bodyguard followed suit.
Chula said, “I’ll be back as soon as the Federales leave.”
By the time Chula returned to the ranch house, the Federales and marines were swarming around his property. As he entered his kitchen, an ancient-looking officer asked, “Where were you?”
“With a bunch of dead steers.” Chula moved closer. “Here, take a whiff.”
The officer winced. “As soon as it stops raining, we will burn them in our fire pit.” Satisfied with the explanation, the officer instructed, as if talking to a young boy, “Go take a shower.”
The Federales and marines spent over four hours at the ranch. About fifty of them circled the fire pit. They pointed their powerful flashlights to the pit below, but saw nothing suspicious. Two Federales climbed into the pit, but the stench was so overwhelming that they climbed back up quickly and reported that Guzman and his bodyguard were not among the cattle. The search party moved on. Guzman heard the soldiers leaving and wondered if the man would return or let him rot within the bowels of the steer. An hour passed and Guzman experienced something new to him: panic. He attempted to force open his hiding place, but the staples held. For the first time in his life, Guzman hyperventilated, but then felt some movement on the outside and heard the popping of the staples being removed. The next time panic gripped him would be five years later, when inmates died around him from the Corona virus and prison guards forced him to wear a mask.
Chula said, “I just needed to make sure they left,” to which Guzman, still feeling the effects of his earlier anxiety, but returning to his macho persona, replied casually, “No problem.”
As they drove back to the ranch house, Chula gave Guzman and his bodyguard blankets and hot coffee, which he poured from a thermos. “When we get back to the ranch, you both can have a shower. I have some clean clothes and shoes from my ranch hands, which I think will fit you. Then we can have a decent meal. You must be hungry.”
Guzman replied, “Thank you …uh …I don’t know your name.”
Chula assumed that Guzman really paid no attention when he introduced himself. He extended his hand and said, I’m Don Chula. “Guzman grasped his hand and said, “I’m fortunate to have met you, Don.”
Chula replied, “Likewise.”
Showered, refreshed, and wearing clean clothing, Guzman and his bodyguard joined Chula, and his wife, Adriana, for dinner. Throughout dinner, punctuated by mostly banal small talk, Guzman continued to look at Adriana as if trying to place her. Finally, he said to her, “I know you from somewhere, but just can’t figure out where.”
Adriana smiled, pleased that she had some minor form of recognition and offered, “I used to be an actress. Maybe you saw me in Batalla en el Cielo or in El Violin. Those were my last two movies, back in 2010.”
“Yes,” he said, I remember you. The movies were quite good. Both won jury awards at Cannes as I remember.”
The thoughts of Chula and Adriana at that moment were identical and incredulous: “He knows about Cannes?”
“You should have continued with your career.”
She looked at Chula in a way that suggested that life on the ranch was far from perfect and that continuing her acting career might have been a better option than the life they were leading. “I thought about it, but then I met Don, and fell in love. We had our daughter, Isabella, and we moved out here.”
“I’ve always liked movies. We have ways of getting discs of all the new ones. In fact, I’m going to be seeing an actress soon, if I can; Kate Del Castillo. Do you know of her?”
Adriana replied, “Oh yes. She’s quite famous. I think just last week she was featured in People En Espanol.”
“I’m looking forward to meeting her and possibly an American actor, Sean Penn for an interview; very talented. It should be interesting.”
“Won’t that be risky?” asked Chula
“I don’t think so. I’ve taken precautions.”
After the bodyguard and Adriana went to bed, Guzman and Chula sat by the living room’s fireplace and drank Jim Beam Single Barrel bourbon. As the alcohol took hold, Guzman relaxed and opened up about his life. Things were not going well. The Americans had found and destroyed virtually every tunnel constructed by his Cartel. Moving drugs across the border was becoming more difficult by the day. Guzman, his mood tamped down by the bourbon, speculated that it wouldn’t be long before his recapture or even death. He preferred death to being transported to an American prison, but he was certain that his extradition was an impossibility.
“After all,” he said, “I’m Mexican and a bit of a folk hero.”
Guzman stared into the fire and after a long pause said, “You know the two things I regret? First, I regret not having unified all the cartels in Mexico into one giant criminal organization. That had always been my plan. Right now, we are having a devastating war with another cartel. It makes no sense for us to be fighting or for us not to be united. Can you imagine if I unified all the cartels? We would be more important than the government. Now, I don’t know if that will happen, at least not in my lifetime. The other thing I wanted to accomplish was to find one central and secure location for most of our operations, but that also may never happen.”
There appeared to be a tinge of sadness in Guzman’s voice. To Chula, Guzman seemed like a man who was coming face to face with his own mortality. Chula thought, “And what about being responsible for the deaths of over 50,000 people? No regrets there?” It surprised him that a man like Guzman could have regrets about anything but he knew that everyone, no matter how heinous, had regrets of some sort.
Guzman poured some more bourbon into his glass and asked, “So what about you? How did you become a rancher?”
“My parents were farmers in the Michoacan region. I worked on their farm when I was younger, as did my brothers and sisters. When I was around 15, I worked part time at a paleterea. In the beginning, I just scooped ice cream, but the owner, who had about a dozen paletereas, gave me more and more responsibility. By the time I was seventeen, I was supervising his whole operation. He was very appreciative, saw some potential in me and offered to help me out with college. When I graduated high school, I was lucky enough to get a partial scholarship to Cornell. With the money he gave me and working two jobs, I could afford to go to college. Cornell had a well-known agricultural and veterinary department. I thought I might return to our farm and expand it. One summer I worked on a cattle ranch in Hawaii and thought cattle ranching might be a good business, but didn’t follow through immediately. Shortly before I graduated, Monsanto recruited me. It has a huge agrichemical business. Are you familiar with the company?”
Guzman’s response was nonchalant, “My broker put me into it about ten years ago. I still have about 500,000 shares.”
Shocked for the second time, Chula thought, “He has a broker?” He continued, “I worked there for three years; learned a lot about running a business and made a nice living, but wasn’t happy. I wanted to have my own business. So, after Monsanto, I gave cattle ranching a shot. Using all my savings, I bought 500 acres and 200 mangy, and mostly diseased steers from the United Cattle Company. United thought the land and cattle were worthless, but they didn’t have a clue. Then, with the help of a friendly banker, a few years later I bought 4500 acres and 3000 more steers from United, who was just about to go bankrupt.”
Guzman asked, “So, are you making any money?”
“I’m doing ok. I had this idea of raising Mexican Kobe, which apparently is catching on. The steers are about twenty to thirty percent larger than regular steers. That’s why it was easy for you to fit inside them.”
“I got the feeling that your wife doesn’t love life on the ranch.”
Impressed by Guzman’s perceptiveness, Chula replied. “Well, when I said I did ok, I meant I made a living. I cleared about $100,000 last year. But Adriana isn’t thrilled about living here. She reads about some actresses that she started with and how their careers have taken off. She misses the glamour and the high life. She knows that if we go back to Mexico City, I can return to Monsanto and make over $250,000 a year, and she might resume her acting career.”
Guzman didn’t reply directly but merely said “Hmm.”
The following morning, Guzman asked for a tour of the ranch. While Chula didn’t understand the reason for the request, he drove Guzman and his bodyguard through most of the 5000 plus acres, and as he did so, he pointed out some industrial-style buildings and explained their functions. Chula thought it curious that Guzman would periodically ask him to stop so he could take photos on his cell phone and then send them via email to someone. Occasionally, Guzman would look at a particular building and say to himself, “Perfect.” When they returned, Guzman instructed his bodyguard to wait on the porch of the ranch house and told Chula to drive him down the road about 100 yards and then to stop. When he did so, Guzman asked, “Suppose, I wanted to put some kilos of heroin into a steer. How many do you think I could load?”
Chula understood what Guzman was getting at and thought, “He would use the cattle to transport heroin and other drugs over the border; fucking brilliant.” He said smiling, “So the cattle would be your mules.” This evoked a very rare smile from Guzman.
“I think you could probably do twenty kilos.”
For a man who was more often than not poker-faced, Guzman had a flush of excitement. “That’s a profit to us of over a million per head.”
Without understanding his reason for suggesting anything to El Chapo, Chula volunteered, “You’d be wise to purchase the meat processing plant right across the border in Presidio, Texas, where I ship the cattle, then you’d have your own men running it and you could probably make a profit on the beef.”
“Yes. I already thought of that. I also think your ranch will be a good place to consolidate many of our operations. You’re a pretty smart guy and I sense I can trust you. The question is whether you would be interested in helping us.”
Chula had no interest in working for Guzman’s Cartel but out of curiosity asked, “How much would I make?”
Another offhand remark from Guzman: “We’ll give you a sign-up bonus of two million and then figure upwards of two million a year. Money is never a problem for us. Of course, you’ll need to sign over the ranch to the Cartel, or I should say a shell company run by us.”
“That’s a very generous offer, but I’m not cut out for the cartel life. And I know Adriana would definitely say no.”
Chula always remembered this part of the conversation with great clarity. It was almost as if Guzman was being condescending. “Look, Don, one way or the other, the Cartel will own the ranch. We have many people who can run it, but I think with your intelligence you would be the best person for the job.”
“And if I say no?”
“That would be unfortunate Don, since you’d know about our plans for the ranch and we couldn’t permit that if you get my drift. You’ve seen the Godfather. It’s one of my favorite movies. Just tell your wife I made you an offer you couldn’t refuse, no you dare not refuse. Work for us, make millions and stay alive.” He emphasized, “Stay alive.”
Chula replied, “Understood,” but thought, “What a fucking monster. He doesn’t give a shit for anyone but himself.” He felt like saying, “So just like that you take over my life regardless of the consequences for me,” but knew that since Guzman had no moral compass he would have replied, “That’s right.” Chula realized that he had little choice and that his life was about to change irrevocably. He nodded his head to indicate his acceptance while thinking, “How the hell am I going to explain this to Adrianna?”
“Good. I’ll have someone contact you in a few days.”
Guzman said, “Before I go, I have a question. Why were you so helpful to us from the very start?”
“I thought that if you didn’t trust me immediately, you’d probably kill us.”
“Probably so.” Guzman replied.
A week later, Chula met in Mexico City with some higher-ups with the Cartel and accepted the offer. Three weeks later, a swarm of Federales and police re-captured El Chapo, but his Sinaloa Cartel did not skip a beat. A few months later, Chula integrated into the Cartel and supervised the cattle drives to Texas with cattle bearing kilos of heroin. Within two years, his herd had grown to 10,000 heads, his acreage tripled, and he was running other major operations of the Cartel on his ranch. Five years later he became the head of the Cartel and began the unification process Guzman only dreamt about.
May 20, 2030 – Morningside Heights, Manhattan
Hector Morales and three of his fellow graduate students were drinking beer and commiserating in a local hangout near Columbia University. The following day they would receive MBAs from the University’s School of Business and set off on their life’s’ paths. It was long into the evening and each of them was predicting their future. His three friends got their short-term predictions right; that part was simple. When it was Morales’ turn, not intending to be facetious, but thinking it to be inevitable, he said: “I plan to have a secure and very dull life running my family’s bank in Mexico City.”
The spontaneous response from his friends was a series of mock boos. His closest friend at school, Laura Gold, destined many years later to become head of the Fed, intervened.
“No way, Hector. Impossible! We all took a vote, and it was unanimous. We voted you as most likely to succeed.”
Morales took a long swig of beer, laughed and replied, “Well if that’s true, it would seem that your future lives will not be very exciting.”
Ironically, however, their prediction came true. Within ten years of his graduation, Morales would be working for Chula as a high functioning member of the “Aztec Cartel,” renamed from Sinaloa because it represented a consolidation of most of the major cartels in Mexico. In its merged form, Aztec was the largest and most powerful criminal enterprise in history. Then, at 39, Morales succeeded Chula and became the head of the Cartel. In this position, his wealth and power dwarfed that of Guzman. Ultimately, Morales would be responsible for the worst drug epidemic in American history, so severe that the CDC characterized it as the most impactful health crisis since Covid-19. The consequence of the epidemic, prison overcrowding of unimaginable proportions, would lead to an Orwellian medical procedure performed on prison inmates and known as the “Alcatraz Option,” so named because Alcatraz, refurbished and enlarged to accommodate a daily influx of new prisoners, was the first prison in the country to offer the Option.
There is little doubt that when Morales stepped up to receive his diploma the following day and waived to his proud parents, relatives, and friends, the concept of him becoming a drug lord would have been as implausible to them as Morales sprouting wings and flying over rooftops. How could they possibly know in that moment of joy that the young man walking across the stage to receive his diploma, whom they loved and admired so much, had all the makings of a sociopath?
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