Reports that Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo," lived in Argentina until March 2011 have sparked new speculation about the fugitive capo’s whereabouts.
Quoting an anonymous source in the Argentine government, Noticias Argentinas said that Guzman began living in the country with his wife and stepdaughter in 2010. The fugitive only moved on early this year after being alerted that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was pursuing an arrest order, according to the report, traveling to Paraguay, Colombia, and then Europe.
“It is believed that he used a new false identity,” the official said. “But this we can say, there are registers of his wife and stepdaughter leaving Argentina in March of this year.”
The allegation, which has not been independently confirmed, conflicts with the image of Guzman holed up in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains, protected by loyal gunmen and friendly locals. Reports of the Sinaloa kingpin going abroad have emerged periodically, but never to the extent of the latest story, which has him traveling from country to country with his family.
However, because of the pressure at home from the Calderon government’s ongoing campaign against organized crime, many Mexican gangs have shifted portions of their operations abroad. Perhaps the biggest example of this is the Zetas’ growing role in Guatemala, but Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel has been detected as far away as Malaysia and Australia. And with a number of the most notorious Mexican gangsters arrested or killed by the government in the past 18 months, it is also not inconceivable that Mexican capos would think it a safer option to take refuge outside of the country.
If so, this would mirror the pattern set by Colombian drug traffickers. Because of the improved capacity of the Colombian authorities, many capos, who a generation ago would have operated unmolested in Cali, Bogota, and Medellin, have found it more practical to operate abroad. As a result, instances of Colombians being arrested on drug charges in other regions of South America or in Mexico have become more common.
In one famous Argentine example, Hector Edilson Duque Ceballos, alias "El Monoteto," was shot to death along with a colleague in a Buenos Aires parking lot in 2008. Duque Ceballos had been one of the highest-ranking members of Colombia's Cordillera Cartel.
Mexican drug lords also have a long history in Argentina, dating back to former Juarez capo Amado Carrillo’s plans to move there in the 1990s. According to Proceso, Guzman had been building his presence in the South American nation since at least 2007, using a series of evangelical churches as fronts for his organization.
Other Mexican groups have followed Guzman into Argentina. According to Edgardo Buscaglia, a researcher with the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico, members of the Tijuana Cartel are working with Guzman’s people in the country. Authorities have also uncovered evidence of the Zetas operating there, though not in tandem with Guzman.
Guzman’s work in Argentina centers primarily on the production and distribution of synthetic drugs, according to the Proceso report. This is concentrated in three poor northern provinces: Chaco, Formosa, and Misiones. As a result, Guzman’s group has easy access to Uruguay, Brazil, and Paraguay, including the notoriously lawless tri-border area that Argentina shares with the latter two nations. Guzman has also allegedly invested significant amounts of money in some of the largest cities in Argentina, such as Buenos Aires, Cordoba, and Santa Fe.
The appeal of Argentina for drug syndicates is rooted in a number of factors. With its long coastline and busy port system, Argentina is a valuable source of important precursor chemicals for synthetic drugs from Asia. The relative weakness of state institutions in much of its territory means that capos have little trouble in corrupting officials. Guzman, for example, was reportedly tipped off about the DEA order by a collaborator in the Argentine government. Furthermore, with more than 40 million citizens, the country also provides a significant retail market for drugs.