What was the cost to national security for the 15 years that Joaquín Guzmán Loera was free following his escape in January 2001 until he was arrested again in January 2016? How many deaths and how much of the destabilization in different parts of the country could be attributed to him? How deep was the network of political-economic interests that abided him for almost three presidential administrations ? What are the features of a national security crisis? Sentenced to life imprisonment last Wednesday, July 17  by Judge Brian Cogan in a Federal Court in Brooklyn, New York, the figure of El Chapo cannot be understood without what happened before and after his escape within the national security agencies.
A silence fell over the room like blanket that afternoon in November 2002 in the court martial hearing at military camp number one. It was as if the attendants had been buried under the weight of an invisible cloak that had them holding their breath. A voice within the corridor pierced the silence.
A gray-haired man dressed in the royal blue dress uniform of the army stood there, wearing on his epaulettes the golden eagle from the coat of arms of the Mexican flag with three stars embroidered in gold that signified his rank as a major general. He began his testimony with something that left many of those present speechless.
If I speak, I will cause a national security crisis
Francisco Quirós Hermosillo, the artillery officer who changed to infantry and who cut his teeth fighting the guerrillas in the 1970s, the career officer who intimidated everyone with his tall stature, had surprised everyone when he stood facing the dais where six members of the court martial sat in judgement of him.
It was the final hearing and it was his turn to defend himself in public. A full week of open-door proceedings had already elapsed, where previously unknown episodes of the internal life within the military had come to light. Those were days when the historical secrecy of the Mexican army was broken and a crack opened, exposing several high-ranking commanders for their relationships with the heads of drug trafficking in Mexico.
That afternoon, Quirós Hermosillo asserted executive privilege regarding everything he had done under the orders he had received from various presidents of the republic and secretaries of National Defense. Decisions that for several presidential administrations, he implied, served to safeguard national security.
And he was not the only one. That afternoon, another general known for his role in the Dirty War against subversive groups in the country had also been called to the stand. Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro Escápite, the airborne officer trained at the Green Beret School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, whose methods interrogating civilians accused of being guerrillas were reflected in the records on forced disappearances in Guerrero, was sentenced that afternoon to 15 years in prison for charges related to ties to drug trafficking during the 1990s.
What came to light during those proceedings was that both Generals Acosta Chaparro and Quirós Hermosillo, after fighting the guerrillas and under the orders from their superiors, became "links" with the leadership of drug trafficking in the country. They never imagined that at the twilight of the old PRI regime, which came to a end in 2000 with Ernesto Zedillo as president of the republic and Enrique Cervantes Aguirre as secretary of National Defense, their legacies would be defenestrated for the sake of a supposed "democratic transition" that only remained in political alternation.
Quirós Hermosillo and Acosta Chaparro were arrested in September 2000, four months before El Chapo escaped from the Puente Grande prison in Jalisco. Joaquín Archibaldo Guzmán Loera had come up in the 1980s and early 1990s under protection of Juan José Esparragoza Moeno, interlocutor of both military officers, and Amado Carillo Fuentes.
In the annals of the army's campaign against drug trafficking, there was a judicial plot that came to be known as "Maxiproceso", it was the trial against a hundred characters, both civilian and military, accused of being part of the network of assets of Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the trafficker who embodied an era in Mexico and who was christened by the Mexican and American authorities as "the Lord of the Skies."
The court martial was an extension of that plot against two of Amado's old acquaintances.
Who would have imagined that over the years, Quirós Hermosillo's insistence on remaining silent in order to prevent a national security crisis would become a harbinger of the period of instability that began in 2002 with the increase in the power of organized crime, the beginning of territorial control in large areas of the national geography, and the fracture in the security backbone of the State. Something that exploded during the administration of Felipe Calderón Hinojosa (2006-2012).
The destabilization of security
Did the 2002 conviction of Quirós Hermosillo and Acosta Chaparro for ties to drug trafficking mean the end of an era in the “behind-the-scenes” relations between the government and the bosses of the narco mafia in Mexico?
The hypothesis was one of the interpretations following the adjournment of the court martial.
Security specialists consulted by this Blog, following the sentence of life imprisonment on July 16, 2019 against "El Chapo" Guzmán in the United States, traced a 15-year arc of destabilization of the country's security from the year in which both generals were sentenced to when the kingpin was ultimately recaptured in 2017 and then extradited.
In 2002, when Quirós and Acosta Chaparro had been in prison for two years, El Chapo set to work recovering his power by eliminating his historic enemies, the brothers Benjamin and Ramón Arellano Félix. The first was arrested in Puebla and the other was killed in a shooting in Mazatlán.
At that time, the rearrangements within the drug trafficking business were analogous to rearrangements of civil authority. Characters related to the PAN, the party that came to power, were placed in security roles about which they knew little to nothing. El Chapo's escape in January 2001 and the role of the officials responsible for the prison system and the Interior Ministry (SEGOB), remained as a precedent for the impunity that would henceforth become the norm.
Two factors would be determinative for the direction of internal security. The militarization of law enforcement at the federal level, with General Rafael Macedo de la Concha, who ceased to be a military attorney to occupy the office of the PGR during the administration of Vicente Fox, whose administration came to be defined by the fabrication of criminal charges and the corruption of ministerial agents.
The second factor was the contamination of organized crime in the recruitment of special forces soldiers commissioned as agents of the Federal Judicial Police, and creating the first paramilitary group with special training in the service of a transnational drug trafficking organization.
The CIA, the army and El Chapo
It could be said that it all started in the summer of 1997. Within the National Defense Secretariat (SEDENA), there was a change in geostrategic alliances with the United States, which became known as the third link. At that time, a link in matters of national defense was added to the political and economic agreements, with a cooperation that had never been seen before.
Outwardly in the army, the episode that led to the arrest of Major General Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo—the highest-ranking military officer accused, prosecuted and exonerated years later for alleged links with drug trafficking—was fresh.
Inwardly, what this episode left was a chilling effect on the army's collaboration with the DEA, which Rebollo spearheaded, and the beginning of a broader relationship with the Department of Defense and the Department of State, in particular with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), whose station chief in Mexico in those years was John Coll.
The cooperation of the National Defense Secretariat, headed by General Enrique Cervantes Aguirre, with the CIA led to the creation of the Anti-Narcotics Intelligence Center (CIAN), modeled after the Central Intelligence Narcotics (CINC) division, an branch of the agency that emerged after the end of the Cold War and focused on transnational drug trafficking organizations with interests on the geopolitical agenda on issues such as terrorism.
CIAN was created with two generals who are now retired, the former Colonel Augusto Moisés García Ochoa as chief, and the former Lieutenant Colonel Miguel Ángel Patiño Canchola as second in command. It was staffed with a small group of officers who were trained in the CIA's facilities in Langley, Virginia. Its mission fell into of two basic categories: analysis and investigation. The investigation work included tasks that were not done at the time, in part because they were so expensive to do. An example was the creation of front companies, which implied expenses in renting real estate, registration in finance, stationery and managing bank accounts. All to offer services and obtain confidential information, as was done with several companies that were fronts for criminal groups at the airport and that were infiltrated.
The first operations by CIAN were against the so-called Gulf Cartel. The arrest of then-leader Oscar Malherbe de León in March 1997 in a shopping center in Mexico City happened a few days before the "certification" of the US government in the fight against drug trafficking was given.
Officials who participated in the creation of CIAN, say that the CIA presented them with what they called the "Cayman Project", which they later renamed "Project X", which was where all the information generated during the investigations was compiled.
Several of the CIAN officers were also part of the Airborne Special Forces Group (GAFE) of the National Defense High Command. When the presidency of the republic changed with the defeat of the PRI in the 2000 election, there was a change in the command of CIAN and Brigadier General García Ochoa resigned from his position which was then filled by his colleague, Roberto Aguilera Olivera.
Two moments would define the future of CIAN operations and the role of the CIA in the following years: the escape of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán in January 2001 from the Puente Grande prison in Jalisco, and the emergence of a paramilitary criminal group that had been a platoon of special forces soldiers commissioned into the Federal Judicial Police.
The CIA's collaboration with the army in the first years of Vicente Fox's administration changed after the attack on the twin towers on September 11, 2001. The agents who had worked there since 1997 with a small group of officers attached to the CIAN division of the National Defense General Staff withdrew from the country to deploy to Afghanistan.
When the CIAN staff left, they were repurposed for gathering intelligence to recapture Joaquín Guzmán Loera. One of the officers who participated in the task force recalled that during their pursuit of El Chapo, he was given the codename 'Tomás'.
They spent more than a year doing telephone wiretaps in the mountains of Sinaloa and Durango listening to 'Tomás'. The officer recalled that in December of 2003, a celebration was planned at the home of one of El Chapo's girlfriends and so special surveillance was set up since every time he came out of hiding to go down to Culiacán or travel to Durango, it was known that this was his weakness and it increased the probability of locating him.
From the wiretaps, the task force learned that Chapo Guzmán had a habit of always answering the phone the same way.
"Qué pasó amigo? Comó le va?"
That was the phrase that meant it was him.
CIAN's first operation against El Chapo was in 2004. On that occasion, he was going to visit Mrs. Consuelo, his mother, at the La Tuna ranch in Badiraguato. When they located him, they requested an Air Force Black Hawk. The helicopter was notorious for its engines which could be heard from a distance. The only glimpse that the special forces soldiers in pursuit of Chapo ever caught was of him fleeing on an ATV followed by his escort in similar vehicles.
Despite the deployment of resources to obtain information, something happened that generated suspicions among the members of CIAN. The reports that General Aguilera Olivera received were 90 percent accurate. The head of CIAN said that the missing 10 percent was not useful for him to act.
The next time they located El Chapo was in Altata, on the coast of the Sea of Cortez, just over half an hour from Culiacán. One of the officers proposed to send a team of divers to infiltrate by water in their approach to the house that overlooked the beach. Aguilera told them they were watching too many movies and the plan was scrapped.
Another time they located Chapo Guzmán in Tamazula, Durango. The place where he was had armed sentries posted in the surrounding hills. The task force suggested dropping paratroopers, bringing snipers, and eliminating sentries. A CIAN lawyer objected on the basis that it could be considered homicide and it was never done.
Officials who belonged to CIAN say that there was a before and after in the strategy for the recapture of El Chapo. In one of the operations in the mountains where he managed to flee, an envelope was found during a search of the property with information similar to a confidential report on Guzmán's movements that had also been delivered to the head of CIAN.
"How did you find that place?" They wondered.
Since then, the suspicions of information leaks have been confirmed.
There were also exhilarating triumphs, such as the day that the entire protection ring formed by military deserters was identified. In a search of one of the ranches, they seized several hard drives. On one of them, there were several photographs in which Manuel Alejandro Aponte Gómez, a former lieutenant who had deserted and who went by the nickname “El Bravo”, appeared carrying on his shoulder a LAU, an American disposable rocket launcher. They knew from the way he carried the weapons that he had been in the special forces. They asked for information on what year he had taken the Special Forces Instructor Officers Course (COIFE). When they got the list, they identified two more of the cohort who had also deserted and were with him.
Aguilera left the leadership of CIAN at the end of 2006 with the end of Vicente Fox's administration. When General Guillermo Galván assumed the National Defense Secretariat, Aguilera was sent as a military attaché to Buenos Aires, Argentina. After a few months, they ordered him to return and he was ordered to request his discharge and he retired from the army. Since then, his case has been classified.
Shortly before the end of the Fox administration, a statement by General Gerardo Clemente Vega García appears to have been premonitory. The outgoing Secretary of National Defense said that things would get very bad, and that he was considering moving away from the country.
What did General Vega know would happen and that manifested as a profound destabilization in the country's internal security in the years that followed?
In perspective, what happened in those years came to light a few months ago during the appearances of the former partners of Chapo Guzmán in the Court of Brooklyn, New York.
The statements of Vicente Zambada Niebla, the first-born of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, generated surprise but confirmed what has been learned since then.
The sudden "disappearance" of Vicente Fox's escort, the more than 6-foot tall Colonel Marco Antonio De León Adams—who according to Zambada Niebla was in charge of giving the heads up so that El Chapo was alerted and moved from where he was every time the task force came after him—was suspicious.
Another was the statement he made against the former senior SEDENA officer in the first years of Felipe Calderón's administration. The name of the now retired general Eduardo Antimo Miranda came up in Zambada Niebla's testimony, in which he stated that his father had Antimo Miranda on the payroll in exchange for information.
The ghost of General Aguilera Olivera roamed the Brooklyn courthouse when it was said that El Chapo and Mayo Zambada had more active duty military personnel on their payroll. One of them "from the General Staff" tipped them off every time they came for one of them.
The epigraph of the trial that sentenced Chapo Guzmán to life imprisonment, was written from the impunity that covers all former civil and military officials who, with their actions, allowed the country to sink into the spiral of violence and impunity with no end in sight.