El Chapo -- "Shorty" in Mexican slang -- controls the Sinaloa cartel, named for the northern Mexican state from which many of the country's drug lords hail. Guzman, who is 5 feet 6 inches tall, has sought refuge in Sinaloa's mountainous terrain along the Gulf of California, paying off Mexican law enforcement authorities and terrorizing Mexican citizens, according to experts and congressional testimony from the U.S. Department of Justice. His success at staying at large has led some experts to suggest that Guzman's influence extends high into the Mexican police and government.
Guzman's Sinaloa cartel has been engaged for several years in a bloody battle with other traffickers over lucrative smuggling routes into the U.S. from Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. The drug war there has claimed the lives of 380 people so far this year, according to Spanish news agency Efe, including 15 teenagers who were gunned down last month.
The murders seem to outdo each other, with each one more vicious and gruesome than the last. That ultra-violent style, along with the frequent discoveries of weapons caches and decapitated heads, seems intended to remind residents and authorities alike that Guzman is still at large and powerful. Last year, more than 2,600 people were murdered in Juárez, on top of 1,600 drug-related deaths in 2008.
In the last six months, Mexican authorities have countered the cartels' bloody media campaign by nabbing some high-ranking leaders. In August, three dozen defendants were indicted in Chicago in what prosecutors described as the biggest international narcotics conspiracy case in that city's history. Last month Jesus Vicente Zambada-Niebla, known as Mayito, the son of one of Sinaloa's faction leaders, was extradited to Chicago.
"Through close and sustained cooperation with our partners in Mexico, we are bringing alleged cartel leaders to justice, on both sides of the border," Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said in a Feb. 18 press release announcing the extradition. Breuer was unable to comment on why Guzman hasn't been captured because cases are pending against him, U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said.
Guzman has survived in a treacherous and deadly business. Last December, another cartel leader, Arturo Beltran-Leyva, was killed in a shootout with the Mexican navy outside his apartment in the tourist city of Cuernavaca. In January, Teodoro "El Teo" Garcia Simental, a former hit man for a rival, Tijuana-based cartel alleged to have switched allegiance to Guzman's gang, was arrested by federal police at his home in Baja California. On Monday, witnesses testified at the smuggling trial in El Paso federal court that Fernando Ontiveros-Arambula was an important figure in Guzman's Sinaloa cartel, on the same tier as Mayito.
Yet there is no evidence that any of those arrests threaten Guzman's status as the king of the "narcotraficantes." Indeed, investigative reporters and experts in Mexico have begun to allege that the government of President Felipe Calderón is sheltering him.
"There are no important detentions of Sinaloa cartel members," Diego Osorno, the author of a book on the Sinaloa cartel that was published last year, told Al-Jazeera last week.
Edgardo Buscaglia, a Mexican law professor and organized-crime expert, analyzed 50,000 drug-related arrest documents dating back to 2003 and found that only a handful targeted members of the Sinaloa cartel.
"It would seem there are a lot of people on the take, including police and military on the local and federal levels," said Howard Campbell, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas-El Paso who has spent the last seven years researching Mexican cartels. "I don't think anyone in Mexico doubts that. I don't think anyone in U.S. law enforcement doubts that either."
During a press conference last week, Calderón said his government had spared no one in its aggressive campaign to wipe out the cartels. He also said claims that he was protecting Guzman were "absolutely false."
"It's incredible to me that when we're catching criminals of the stature of El Teo, for example, who is part of Chapo Guzman's cartel, people say the government is protecting this cartel, [or] when someone like Vicente Zambada is extradited, that the government protects this cartel," Calderón said. "It's simple ignorance."