Image via Cortesia / Agencia Reforma
I recently received an anonymous tip on a piece I wrote last year that catalogued some of the ingenious narco-smuggling tech used by Guzmán, the world's most powerful and wealthy cartel boss. His methods run the gamut from ancient Grecian artillery (weed catapults) to sly business fronts (his one-time jalapeño company thrived off cans of coke-stuffed peppers) to million-dollar watercraft (narco submarines).
It's this whatever-works approach to providing Americans with a great deal of their drugs that has propelled his Sinaloa cartel to grim, if not receding notoriety, and Chapo himself to mythic status across Mexico. Countless narcocorridos sing his high praises. And though he's known to frequent bustling urban areas, brazenly hiding in plain sight, few pictures of the man exist.
Which makes this tip so puzzling. The commenter, who I'll call "Tom," writes to tell me that when it comes to putting a face to Chapo and to Mexico's narco saga writ large, the press (myself included) routinely has it all wrong.
"All the text [in the article] is pretty much accurate, but the picture you posted is incorrectly labeled," writes Tom, whose sources, he assures me, are reliable. "It is not a picture of 'el Chapo' at all."
According to Tom, the picture--the same one displayed at the top of this post--is actually of Ismael "Maya" Zambada Garcia, one of Chapo's top lieutenants, who's seen standing beside "a millitary commander/general of the millitary in that area" who worked with Zambada Garcia. Variously known as "el Mayito" and "el Mayo," Zambada Garcia sits on Mexico's list of most-wanted traffickers and is arguably as elusive as his boss. Misinformation fuels capo mystique, of course, but it's been said that Zambada has taken to plastic surgery in order to move freely under the radar.
Does this solo shot, reportedly of "el Chapo," look slightly Photoshopped to anyone else? (via Borderland Beat)
Intrigued, I asked Tom to elaborate. How is he so sure that Forbes, Wired, and countless other top-tier media outlets, as well as websites like this one, are unknowingly perpetuating the incorrect image? How does he know I fucked up?
Tom wrote back to explain how he not only hails from the same region as Guzmán--northwestern Mexico's Sinaloa state--but that a few of his uncles even used to work in the area's jalapeño harvest and transport, though he made no mention as to whether they were specifically in Chapo's employ, or not. So if we're to take his word, Tom, of all people, would be familiar with the specter of Chapo.
"I think I'd know what he looks like," Tom tells me, "and especially what he doesn't look like."
To be absolutely clear, I cannot verify this 100 percent. Nor am I taking Tom's word without a healthy, healthy dose of skepticism. Again, rumor and misinformation fuel blood, profit, and power in the narco wars. I'm waiting to hear back from Tom on a few follow up questions, and will update should he get back to me.
But until then, he's certainly piqued my interest. Just look at this image of Guzmán--arguably the other most widely disseminated photo of the fugitive drug lord--snapped just prior to his escape from a Mexican prison in early 2001.
Now look at this image, also reportedly of "el Chapo." I could be off here, but this image seems to bear a distinct likeness Zambada Garcia, right down to the slight jowels and unmarked blue cap.
Whatever the case, I'm sure Chapo, wherever he is, doesn't mind the confusion.
Reach Brian at email@example.com. @thebanderson