Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Last Narco

Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World's Most Wanted Drug Lord

by Malcolm Beith

The Last Narco gracefully captures the heroic struggle of those who dare to stand up to the cartels, and the ways those cartels have tragically corrupted every aspect of Mexican law enforcement.” —Laura Bickford, producer of the film Traffic

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date September 06, 2011
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4548-2
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $16.00

About The Book

The dense hills of Sinaloa, Mexico, are home to the most powerful drug lord since Pablo Escobar: Joaquin “El Chapo’ Guzman. Responsible for uncountable murders since taking charge of the Sinaloa cartel in the 1990s, and a central figure in the recent surge in drug-related violence and bloodshed, Guzman is among the world’s ten most-wanted men and also appeared on Forbes magazine’s 2009 billionaire list. With his massive wealth, his army of professional killers, and a network of informants that reaches into the highest levels of government, catching Guzman was considered impossible—until now.

The all-out war between the Mexican cartels has isolated Guzman from former partners at the same time that the Mexican government has intensified its fight to restore order and end the terror. With El Chapo vulnerable as never before, Mexican and DEA authorities are closing in, and journalist Malcolm Beith, a Newsweek contributor who has spent years reporting on the drug wars, follows the chase with full access to senior officials and exclusive interviews with soldiers and drug traffickers in the region, including members of Guzman’s cartel. The Last Narco combines fearless reporting with the story of El Chapo’s legendary rise from a poor farming family to the “capo” of the world’s largest drug empire. Renowned for his charisma as much as for his brutality, Guzman’s defiance of authorities and mythical exploits—including his escape from Puente Grande prison in a laundry cart—have made him a folk hero across Mexico.

Through Guzman’s story Beith uncovers the secret history of the Mexican cartels’ rise to dominance, from their early years assisting the Colombians to the bloody power struggles and new barbarism of today. Guzman emerges as the last remaining narco of the old mold who ruled by principles and whose capture will signal the end of an era. The Last Narco is essential reading about one of the most pressing and dramatic stories in the news today—a true crime thriller happening in real time.


“All of Mexico is El Chapo country. His rise parallels that of Pablo Escobar.” —Newsweek

“Malcolm Beith’s book is a virtual nonstop chase.” —David Steinberg, Albuquerque Journal

The Last Narco is a brave and terrific headlong journalistic trek into the dangerous, and immensely relevant, terrain of drug trafficking in Mexico, and the life and times of its foremost practitioner.” —Sam Quinones, author of True Tales from Another Mexico

The Last Narco gracefully captures the heroic struggle of those who dare to stand up to the cartels, and the ways those cartels have tragically corrupted every aspect of Mexican law enforcement.” —Laura Bickford, producer, Traffic

“Malcolm Beith slaps our faces with our ignorance. We barely know Mexico, and understand even less of its major industry, drugs. In The Last Narco, he gives us a look into a place our government either denies or lies about. This time you can run, but you can’t hide.” —Charles Bowden, author of Murder City

“No ‘war on terror’ was ever as terrifying as the ferocious wars of the drug lords in Mexico. In The Last Narco, Malcolm Beith courageously takes us to the front lines in the heart of the Mexican badlands—and also right on the border of the United States. This is a threat to homeland security that is too often ignored by the press and public, and this is the book that brings it all into focus. A must read.” —Christopher Dickey, author of Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counterterror Force—the NYPD

“Malcolm Beith risked life and limb to tell the inside story of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán Loera, Mexico’s notorious drug capo. A novelist could not have presented a more intriguing or compelling tale of corruption, intimidation, murder, blood feuds, life-and-death negotiations, and the entrepreneurial skill of a near-mythic figure whom Forbes Magazine named one of the world’s richest men. Beith’s superb book corroborates the cliché that fact is stranger than fiction.” —George W. Grayson, professor of government at the College of William & Mary and the author of Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?

“He is the last of the Mohicans. All of the other big cartels have been decapitated. That is why they want him so badly.” —Jorge Chabat, Mexico City Law Enforcement Expert

“A virtual nonstop chase.” —Trading Markets


1. The Great Escape

Prison guard Jaime Sanchez Flores made his usual rounds at 9.15 p.m. at Puente Grande. Nothing was amiss, everyone was in his place.

There was reason to be especially vigilant. Earlier that Friday, 19 January 2001, a group of high-ranking Mexican officials had visited the maximum-security facility, located in the central state of Jalisco. Leading the delegation was Jorge Tello Peon, the nation’s deputy police chief, and high among his concerns was one inmate in particular: Joaquin Archivaldo “El Chapo” Guzman Loera.

Chapo had been in Puente Grande since 1995, having been transferred there two years after his capture in Guatemala. Although he had been behind bars for nearly eight years, and had never tried to break out, there was good reason for Tello Peon to be worried. Just days before the officials’ 19 January visit, the Mexican Supreme Court had ruled that criminals tried in Mexico could be more easily extradited to the United States.

Chapo, facing drug trafficking indictments north of the border, could soon find himself on the way to a maximum-security prison in the United States.

No drug trafficker wanted to face such a fate, and Tello Peon knew it. So did Chapo. Within the towering whitewashed walls of Puente Grande, Chapo could still run his business with little difficulty. Corruption in the prison was rampant, and Chapo’s status as one of Mexico’s most formidable narcos was indisputable—even if he was locked away in a Mexican jail.

But in the United States, Chapo would face real justice, with real consequences. It was every narco’s fear, to be cut off from his closest cronies, his network – to be moved out of the Mexican system that was so riddled with corruption. During the 1980s, Colombia’s drug lords had fought a terror campaign in order to beat down extradition laws; Mexico’s drug lords were of a similar mindset. Chapo would not go to the United States.

Minutes after Sanchez Flores did his last rounds, the lights went out in the cells at the facility, which held 508 prisoners. At the time, Puente Grande was one of three maximum-security penitentiaries in Mexico, equipped with 128 of the best closed-circuit TV cameras—they monitored every corner of the jail—and alarm systems available. The cameras were all operated from outside the prison itself, and no one on the site had access to the controls. In the hallways, only one door could be open at a time—each was electronically controlled.

Between forty-five minutes and an hour after Sanchez Flores last checked up on the drug lord, a guard named Francisco Camberos Rivera, a.k.a. “El Chito,” opened Chapo’s electronically locked cell.

The high-priority prisoner waltzed down the hall and hopped into a laundry cart, which El Chito wheeled right out of Cell Block C3. They took a right, and headed down to the next level of the prison. Most of the electronic doors opened easily, as the circuits had been cut. Others were broken and didn’t work anyway, so they just swung open. One door had been propped open with an old shoe—hardly the epitome of maximum security that the government claimed.

El Chito and Chapo—still in the cart—turned towards Cell Block B3, but the guard quickly realized that was a bad move. There were still people in the dining area, probably guards having a late meal. So El Chito chose a seemingly risky route, going through the hallway lined with observation rooms—which was normally also filled with guards—towards the main exit.

They passed into the area in which visitors and all those who enter the prison during daylight hours are searched from head to toe. The on-duty guard asked El Chito where he was going.

Taking out the laundry, like I always do, the guard replied.

The on-duty officer stuck his hands deep in the cart—but not deep enough. All he felt were clothes and sheets. He waved them through; Chapo was wheeled out of the gates.

Only one guard was monitoring the car park, and he was indoors behind a glass pane with his nose buried in paperwork at his desk. Chapo shed his beige prison jumpsuit and shoes and hopped out of the cart, into the boot of a nearby Chevrolet Monte Carlo.

El Chito dropped the cart off just inside the main gate, as he always did when taking out the laundry, and got behind the wheel of the getaway car. They began their drive out of Puente Grande.

A guard stopped them as they tried to leave the car park. But his shift was about to end, and he was in no mood to do his job thoroughly. He had a quick look inside the vehicle, ignoring the boot, and waved El Chito through. The guard and Chapo drove away down Zapotlanejo Avenue.

Chapo was free.

El Chito’s role wasn’t finished yet. Chapo got into the passenger seat, and told his young accomplice that he would be better off fleeing with him, given that the ensuing newspaper and television headlines, not to mention the manhunts, would all include him.

Worried, El Chito mulled this over as he kept driving. When they arrived on the outskirts of Guadalajara, Chapo told the guard he was thirsty. El Chito went into a shop to buy him a bottle of water.

When he got back to the car, Chapo was gone.

Throughout the whole affair, no alarms in Puente Grande had sounded. The guards in the looming towers of the prison, with their 360-degree view of the area, had seen nothing. Inside, their colleagues carried on their night-time inspections as if nothing had occurred.

At 11.35 p.m., prison warden Leonardo Beltran Santana received a phone call. Chapo wasn’t in his cell, a guard told him. Panic ensued among the prison staff, and they began a search of the facility, cell by cell, room by room, closet by closet. It would be another five hours before Tello Peon would be informed of the break.

Tello Peon’s first thought—rightly—was that the system had broken down. Corruption had long been rampant within Mexico’s prison walls, and only corruption could have allowed Chapo to escape so easily. That had been the precise reason for his visit—to check the prison for signs of guards’ collusion with Chapo and his narco cohorts. Prior to 19 January, there had been rumours that Chapo would try to break out, but no concrete evidence of a plan being put into action. As a result, Tello Peon had ordered that Chapo be transferred to a different wing of the prison after his visit, but this order had not yet been carried out.

“This is treason against the security system and the country,” Tello Peon declared that Saturday morning, as the nation woke up to headlines of Chapo’s Hollywood-style escape. Fuming, livid, the police official vowed to launch a nationwide hunt for this man, to catch Chapo no matter what, to punish all those responsible.

He began at Puente Grande. Seventy-three guards, custodians and even the warden were detained for questioning. Under Mexican law, they would be held for forty days by decree of a judge, in order for the Attorney General’s Office to investigate them thoroughly for alleged complicity in the escape.

In towns near by, the police and Army began their searches. They ransacked houses, ranches, even government buildings, but found little—traces of drug traffickers, guns, money, drugs, but not Chapo.

The hunt spilled over into Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city, located just over five miles away. There, at the home of one of Chapo’s associates, federal police found military-issue weapons, phones and computers, and $65,000 in cash—but still no Chapo. Anonymous tips led them to Mazamitla, a few miles south of Guadalajara, where they searched seventeen houses and four ranches from top to bottom. The people of Mazamitla were harbouring Chapo, or so the authorities had been told, but no, he wasn’t to be found there either.

Within days, it was clear that Chapo must have fled the immediate area. The hunt would have to be extended nationwide, with hundreds of federal police and soldiers scattering everywhere from major cities to tiny pueblos in the sierras and dusty border towns, all searching for the one man who had so embarrassed the government with his escape. As far north as Tamaulipas and all the way to the southern border with Guatemala, checkpoints were reinforced.

Authorities in Guatemala were put on alert. US agencies—the FBI among them—were called in to help in the manhunt north of the border, on the offchance the drug kingpin had made it safely into the United States in the confusion following the breakout. The public was laughing at newly elected President Vicente Fox over Chapo’s disappearance. Fox, meanwhile, was furious and frustrated, as his prison system had been proven useless. No resource would be spared to catch the fugitive.

Chapo, meanwhile, was throwing a party in Badiraguato with his old partners in crime.

The DEA was furious. Cooperation between Mexico and the United States had begun to improve during the Fox administration— Chapo’s escape was “an affront to the efforts to strengthen and honour the rule of law”, fumed then-DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson.

Some DEA agents took his evasion personally, too. They and their Mexican counterparts had lost lives trying to capture drug kingpins, and now Chapo had simply been allowed to walk out of jail. It was a “huge discouragement to law enforcement efforts.”