Tale of two drugs lords: from Cosa Nostra to Guzmán – it’s strictly business | World news | The Guardian17 Febbraio 2019
With the end of the El Chapo trial, Ed Vulliamy charts the lives of two dons a continent apart
They both bore the same nickname: “Shorty”. Salvatore Riina, boss of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra from the late 1970s, reportedly until his death in jail in 2017, was known as Totò ‘u Curtu in dialect. And Joaquín Guzmán Loera, convicted last week of being the world’s biggest drug lord and leader of crime’s mightiest syndicate, Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, became famous as “El Chapo”.
Riina was also called La Belva – the beast – for self-explanatory reasons, and Guzmán, El Rapido, for the speed at which he delivered Colombian cocaine, via Mexico, to the US and Europe.
I saw them both stand trial, a quarter of a century apart: the closing phases of the mafia “Maxi trial” in 1992 with Riina convicted in absentia; then Riina’s own case in 1993; and the opening salvos of Guzmán’s trial last November. Two eras separating two hemispheres; same business, same nickname. And how that business model appeared to change, yet remained in many crucial respects the same.
January 1992 saw final appeals by 360 mafiosi convicted at the Maxi trial of 1985-87 thanks to the endeavours of two phenomenons in anti-mafia history: investigating magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino. Many convictions they secured were overturned by Judge Corrado Carnevale – later himself convicted for mafia association. But in court on 30 January, there was mustachioed Falcone with mountains of paper, eyes like a prairie falcon and intellectual talons to match. There was judge Antonio Valente in golden shoulder-toggles, who dealt the crushing blow, dismissing appeals and reversing previously successful ones – among them: life imprisonment for Riina, on the run, wanted for murder. But it was Falcone and Borsellino who paid with their lives, both blown up that summer.
A month before Falcone was killed, I travelled from Italy to the same courthouse in which Guzmán was convicted – Cadman Plaza East, Brooklyn – where an ambitious district attorney called Rudy Giuliani, collaborating with Falcone, secured the conviction of John Gotti, and the ultimate demise of his Gambino clan.
The blowing up of the Sicilian judges was seen as a sign of the mafia’s defiant strength, but the opposite was true: the Cosa Nostra as an international power astride the Atlantic was crumbling.
And in October 1993, it was back to Palermo: there was the man who ordered those murders. Totò ‘u Curtu arrested at last, on trial in a tweed jacket, burly but sprite, behind red-painted bars, gesticulating as though he owned the place – he was wrong, re-sentenced in person to life imprisonment.
How different in New York this winter. No cage for Guzmán, but there he was, after all those corridos, Netflix episodes and novels: seated among his lawyers and exchanging sweet nothings in sign language with his wife Emma Coronel. Mostly stone-faced, but he enjoyed the odd joke along with others – usually a gag by his own attorneys. Humour was markedly missing from Sicily’s trials.
Unlike Palermo’s judges, who seemed to belong in a Francesco Rosi film, Justice Brian Cogan was wry and professorial. In contrast to Falcone’s charisma, the methodical US prosecutors knew every dot and comma of their case but practised a game of judicial chess rather than the Italian’s moral crusade; the Americans will be unlikely to pay with their lives – let’s hope to God not. Riina’s lawyers were ponderous and severe, Guzmán’s either show-and-dazzle, or relied on tearing (unsuccessfully) at the credibility of “snitch” witnesses who testified in pursuit of commuted sentences. Falcone had two pentiti turncoats, notably Tommaso Buscetta, on whose “theorem” their case was based. Andrea Goldbarg and her prosecution team had 16; Mexicans, it seems, do not set store by omertà, the oath of silence.
But what is there to learn about the rise and fall of these two men, how they did business, and the fallout of their isolation in jail?
Both dealt in commodities without which American and European societies are apparently unable to function: mostly heroin in Riina’s case, mostly cocaine and methamphetamine in Guzmán’s. Both practised that trade with commercial acumen, and enjoyed systemic corruption of the societies wherein they operated. The glaring difference: Riina was tried by his compatriots, Guzmán by a foreign power. Italy has the US as an ally in the “war on drugs”, but it is not its neighbour and master.
Riina’s early career was hallmarked by canny guile, forging alliances to establish the primacy of his Corleone clan over other families from Palermo.
But Riina broke with perverse codes of “honour” which Cosa Nostra took seriously: no female or child victims, minimum collateral casualties. And he declared overt war not only on rivals in the “second Mafia war” but a state that was itself compromised by mafia influence.
Riina ordered high-profile murders: of Communist leader Pio La Torre; General Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa; Piersanti Mattarella, president of Sicily whose brother Sergio is now president of the Republic – and, at another level, infamously, a 13-year-old, kidnapped, strangled and dissolved in acid – by way of warning to others. It was war against society too: the Christmas train bombing of 1984, the Uffizi galleries eight years later.
The veteran chronicler of Cosa Nostra and confidant of Falcone, Francesco La Licata, wrote of Riina: “Whoever did not adapt, died. Records have him involved in more than 100 murders; his was the ruthless strategy of exterminating pentiti and their relatives “up to the 20th degree of kinship’”.
It was an unnecessarily self-destructive course. No one knows the backstory of reported negotiations between Riina and the state, or the “kiss of honour” he allegedly exchanged with prime minister Giulio Andreotti. But when Riina died in 2017, the author on matters mafia Clare Longrigg wrote that Riina “almost destroyed Cosa Nostra”.
Guzmán had a mentor of a kind that Riina did not: Félix Gallardo, godfather and founder of the first real narco-corporation, the Guadalajara cartel of the 1980s. Like Riina, Guzmán built his cartel initially by forging alliances – it even came to be called “La Federación”.
El Chapo fought wars, but never against the state per se. He didn’t need to; Guzmán preferred conviviality with power. His trial told Mexicans what they already knew, and North Americans what they suspected: that the state apparatus was bought top-to-bottom: presidents bribed, army generals on the payroll, police commanders likewise, protecting contraband tunnels and even smuggling drugs themselves; police escorts for consignments of cocaine. “I may not be the president of Mexico,” Guzmán said, even while imprisoned, “but in Mexico I’m the boss.”
Through the other end of the same lens, power needed Guzmán too, in a way that the Italian state, faced with lower levels of violence, did not need the mafia. A pyramidal narco-order in Mexico wherein everyone knows their place, including law enforcement, can be guarantor of a “Pax Mafiosa”, whereby both pyramid and state join forces against wilder, unrulier clans. Guzmán’s wars were different, and differently self-defeating, from Riina’s.
Unable to accept the division of US-border smuggling plazas designated by Gallardo to heirs of the old Guadalajara cartel, Guzmán picked them off one by one, laying claim to the entire frontier. Confederates – the Arellano Félix cartel in Tijuana, the Juárez cartel and even that of the Beltrán Leyva brothers with whom Guzmán grew up – became enemies, escalating hyper-violence to levels that surpassed Sicily’s worst nightmares. While Riina disappeared one boy in acid, Santiago Meza López – “El Pozolero”, the pork stew-maker – who defected from the Arellano brothers to Guzmán, dissolved hundreds.
Both Cosa Nostra and the Sinaloa cartel became multinational, global conglomerates, through alliances, franchises and brute force. As such, they enjoyed the services of illustrious American and British banks that embraced and cleaned their vast profits with impunity, too big to prosecute even when they were caught. Both Riina and Guzmán thus blurred the line between crime and capitalism; they knew their trade as well as any graduate from Harvard Business School. As Riina said: “I reached the fifth year of elementary school. A career in Cosa Nostra doesn’t need a laureate degree.” Both broke the law, but gave the lie to legality.
Guzmán made the added calculation that profit margins were highest at the retail end, ousting Colombian distribution networks in the US – which had, ironically, replaced Sicilian control after the Gotti trial of 1992.
But strength of scale became weakness of control. Both “shorties” can claim to have operated the last truly pyramidal cartels, but neither man really controlled their respective syndicates single-handedly, whatever the judgments at trial. The respective “Cupole” or high-domes, of Cosa Nostra and the Sinaloa cartel were incapable of cohesion.
No one knew who to trust: Riina was probably betrayed by a more business-minded, less bellicose don, Bernardo Provenzano. El Chapo’s Sinaloa cartel imploded between factions and he was likely shopped by its co-founder, Ismael Zambada García, “El Mayo”, who disagreed with Guzmán over succession and strategy. Differences came to a head with El Mayo’s disdain over discussions for a proposed biopic with Sean Penn.
Violence worsens in mafia-land when the plates shift, the plaza is unquiet, chains of command are challenged or disturbed, when the hive gets kicked. Like when you smash a ball of mercury and it becomes a flurry of little balls flying around. This is what happened as Falcone hammered into Cosa Nostra, and when President Felipe Calderón launched Mexico’s latest war on drugs in 2006. And what has been happening in Mexico since Guzmán’s arrest, extradition and fall.
What might be called “narco-genealogy” comes into play. The decade of the Maxi trial was also that of the rise of the Neapolitan Camorra, partly because of its efficacy in allying with Colombian syndicates in time for the cocaine boom, partly because if Cosa Nostra was a patrician corporation, Camorra was opportunist, understanding the zeitgeist of new free-market forces better than patronage or “honour”. It was leaner and meaner, had a horizontal, not vertical, organisation, no “cupola” or central command. Likewise, while Guzmán and Zambada built the Sinaloa edifice, new kids on the block paid little heed to its ways with politicians, police chiefs and generals. Los Zetas took a leaf from the Camorra’s opportunism and free-rolling structure, developed new technology as propaganda and imposed terror on their terrain. In Sinaloa country, you find people to praise Guzmán; in the Zetas’ Tamaulipas, you don’t mention their name. Guzmán never wrenched control from Los Zetas of the lucrative Gulf coast and routes through Nuevo Laredo into Texas, busiest trade corridor in the world.
The Sinaloa cartel remains a force. Recent investigations in Nariño, Colombia, show it maintaining control of the Pacific waterfront at Tumaco, the port through which a third of all Colombian cocaine passes.
But the leader now, “El Mayo” Zambada is ill with reported bone cancer. And there comes a time when even newcomers come of age. Even the Zetas stretch and weaken, so that those balls of mercury come rather to resemble nuclear fission, as ever-smaller bands, gangs, rogue police forces and “out-sourced” affiliates vie to fill vacuums in the international and domestic markets for drugs.
So a third-tier business model emerges, rebellious grandchildren to the dons. In Italy, the ‘Ndrangheta of Calabria established themselves conclusively in the late 1990s, and in Mexico the ferocious new Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación – once outsiders and terrorist impostors, now major players on the international crime scene. As these groups battle to expand turf, there’s every chance that Guzmán’s demise and conviction will increase, not abate, violence in Mexico, already at its highest levels ever since his extradition.
Guzmán said: “When we are good, nobody remembers us. When we are bad, nobody forgets us.” While real-life Chapo rots in jail but lives on through Netflix, the people to watch now are Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes, leader of the CJNG, and others whose names we do not know.
Victor Clark Alfaro, a mafia expert who has watched cartels come and go in Tijuana since the 1980s, last month recalled narcos of yore flashing their wealth around discos and restaurants. But “their heirs are invisible”, he says. “They are businessmen, they’re people you’d meet at the country club. For the first time in three decades, I cannot name their leaders to you.”
That’s the distance we’ve come past Riina and now Guzmán. Because narco traffic is a system, not a syndicate and certainly not a single boss. That’s the fantasy of the “kingpin” strategy under which both “shorties” were convicted: you put away the kingpin and solve the problem.
Wrong: the more that system changes, the more it stays the same and the more violent it gets – so long as demand sustains and the money finds a safe house. For all the mutations and heredity from Falcone to Goldbarg, both old cartels and new splinters defy even the rules of markets at which they are so adept: increasing supply to meet insatiable demand, without suffering a drop in retail price. Drugs know no recession.
With Riina dead and El Chapo locked away, “El Mayo” Zambada becomes the old doyen godfather, having never seen the inside of a jail cell during 50 years in the business. Philosopher too: he told the publisher of Proceso magazine, Julio Scherer, during the only interview he ever gave, in 2010: “The drug trade involves millions of people. How to master them? Well, as for the capos, locked up, dead or extradited, their replacements are already among us.” The war against his kind “is a lost war”. Why lost? asked Scherer. “Because the narco is rooted in society, just like corruption,” replied El Mayo.
Ed Vulliamy, author of Amexica: War Along The Borderline, was Italy correspondent for the Guardian 1990-94 and then US correspondent for the Observer until 2003.