In this life of ours, you sometimes reach a point where you feel so estranged and exhausted by the drip-drip of everyday existence, the ding of your inbox, the noise of the news, that you need to close your eyes and imagine a person for whom life is not like this, a person for whom the normal rules do not apply, a person whose driveway never has to be shoveled and whose car insurance never comes due. By “you” here, I obviously mean “me,” and by “a person,” I mean any number of people, including but not limited to the entire cast of the Fast & Furious franchise and Kate Middleton. But this week, I mostly mean the notorious alleged drug lord and former leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, who is universally known by his nickname: El Chapo.
El Chapo’s trial began this week, in Brooklyn, where he faces a 17-count federal indictment after having been extradited from Mexico last year. All week, I’ve been obsessively refreshing The Independent’s live feed of the proceedings, inhaling—ha, ha—the early stages of a trial that’s expected to run as long as four months. “Inject it into my veins,” I murmured rakishly when opening arguments were delayed several hours because a terrified juror had come to court with a doctor’s note saying she was too anxious to sit on the trial. “That’s the good shit right there,” I whispered to my dog when the defense began its case by claiming that El Chapo had been framed by a vast conspiracy, the shadowy tentacles of which reached out to enfold multiple presidents of Mexico. “I enjoy this, like drugs,” I said in a curiously loud voice, even through my dog had already left the room, when the government asked the judge to throw out the defense’s entire opening statement, more or less on the grounds that it was completely fucking ridiculous.
I am not—friends, let me be clear—a fan of private armies of criminal assassins, or of the dismembering of one’s enemies, or of submarines filled with cocaine. (In fairness, I’m not universally opposed to submarines filled with cocaine.) El Chapo is alleged to have overseen all these things, and I assume all the charges against him are true, partly because the prosecution’s evidence encompasses hundreds of thousands of pages and partly because I have seen the first two seasons of Narcos. He’s responsible for horrors; like many powerful men, he seems ruthless to the point of evil and practiced in monstrous things.
After my fourth consecutive hour of refreshing Twitter in a fugue of stress and boredom, though, I find that part of my imagination is drawn to stories like this. I want to read Wikipedia entries about escapes from maximum-security prisons. (El Chapo has escaped from two, both in Mexico: once purportedly in a laundry cart, in 2001, and once in a tunnel, three years ago.) I want to read about diamond-encrusted handguns, gold-plated AK-47s, decades-long manhunts, hidden mountain estates. I want to read about narrow getaways, preferably through the desert via all-terrain vehicles. At his height, El Chapo made Forbes’s billionaires list despite having no legal income. Now, near his nadir, he’s being held in Manhattan in a prison that may be more restrictive than Guantánamo Bay. Transporting him back and forth to his trial involves shutting down the Brooklyn Bridge so he can be ferried across the East River in an armored convoy, trailed by helicopters. I want to read about this.
Outlaws become folk heroes at moments when established social structures lose the trust of the people who live inside them. In parts of Mexico—including Sinaloa, where El Chapo is from—narcos are widely perceived as a preferable alternative to the government whose control they’re flouting. They’re the ones who build the roads and keep the lights on. Sure, they’re corrupt and violent, fantastically so; more than 150,000 people have been killed in Mexico’s drug wars since 2006. But then, so is the state. At least the narcos are honest about their dishonesty. And when you take the (correct) view that the drug economy and its associated violence are largely a creation of U.S. imperialism—well, it becomes easy to romanticize cartel kingpins as subversive figures defying a cruel, hypocritical world order.
”I like people who weren’t captured,” then–presidential candidate Donald Trump said in 2015, mocking John McCain’s reputation as a war hero. Not getting captured, and escaping when he did get captured, helped El Chapo forge a legend as a kind of trickster-devil-tycoon. In Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, you can today buy T-shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with the number 701, his ranking on the 2009 Forbes billionaires list. (You can also buy them on Amazon.) Not that El Chapo is the only figure representing the alternative anti-order order. In Culiacán, you can pray at a shrine dedicated to Jesús Malverde, the patron saint of narcos. You can visit the cemetery where the bodies of deceased drug lords lie in grandiose tombs, some behind bulletproof glass.
In 2018, reality itself often feels like a failed state, which I think partly explains the fascination El Chapo’s trial holds for some of us. When you have the impression that the world is going mad, where do you look for clarity except to stories in which it obviously already has? The appeal, in other words, isn’t that I want to be El Chapo. It’s that the series of occurrences in which El Chapo is involved seems to belong on the other side of the disintegrating framework whose escalating collapse makes up our contemporary crisis. He’s beyond normalcy. In a way, the less real El Chapo’s story seems—the submarines, the diamonds, the fact that he was tracked down partly because he agreed to let Sean Penn interview him for Rolling Stone—the more real it becomes, because the only thing we know about reality right now is that it does not look like itself.
On one hand, this may be a line of thinking so privileged as to be almost whimsical. On the other hand, there’s a live chance that Dennis Rodman still has a role to play in averting nuclear war, and there’s a live chance that he’ll do it to promote bitcoin.
The problem with making cartel heads into folk heroes, of course, is that cartel heads exist in perfect symbiosis with neoliberal capitalism. They’re not alternatives to it; if anything, they exaggerate its tendencies. No one is more outside the mainstream social order than a drug lord, but no one is a purer capitalist than a drug lord, either—it’s all supply, demand, and distribution leading, if you’re lucky, to a gold hot tub and a giant white balcony. You can’t celebrate cartel kingpins without simultaneously celebrating the system you mean to subvert. More violence, more patriarchy, more exploitation.
A couple of years ago, I spent several months following the British royal family for an essay I was working on. I went to England and visited the major palaces. I flew to the Yukon Territory and tagged along on Will and Kate’s royal tour. I read all the books I could get my hands on. What’s struck me, as I’ve refreshed the live feed of El Chapo’s trial, is that the feeling I’ve gotten from doing so is more or less the same as the feeling I got from bingeing on the royals: the feeling of looking in on a world whose deep strangeness, caused by the warping effects of money and power, seemed to make something elusive legible. Of course, empires have always needed drug dealers—the symbiosis works both ways. The British Empire itself smuggled vast quantities of opium into China beginning in the late 18th century, in part to offset the massive trade deficit caused by Britain’s addiction to tea. In 1839, a viceroy to the emperor of China wrote a letter to Queen Victoria pleading for a halt to the opium trade. The opium trade continued.
Stories about the arc of power are mostly all the same; the main difference is how far you make it along the arc before everything falls apart. If anything, I find the variant of the story represented by the British royal family more fascinating, disturbing, weird, and instructive than the variant represented by El Chapo. It was the same story, but they took it further. I like the people who weren’t captured, too, I guess.