His nickname means “shorty” in Spanish.
But that moniker and his diminutive stature belie the place Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman holds at the pinnacle of a criminal enterprise that stretches from Asia through Mexico and into Kansas City and other U.S. locations.
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Guzman leads the Mexican drug cartel responsible for 80 percent of the methamphetamine now distributed in the United States, according to Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials.
While Mexican criminal organizations like Guzman’s have long trafficked in cocaine and marijuana, their pre-eminence in the methamphetamine market has only come in recent years as an unintended consequence of the crackdown in the United States on the availability of the ingredients used by home meth cooks, officials say.
“They’re businessmen,” said Sgt. Chris Cesena of the Kansas City Police Department’s drug enforcement unit. “Where there’s demand, they’re going to keep the supply up.”
The Mexican cartels are importing a much purer, cheaper and potentially more addictive form of the drug, and in much larger quantities than the small-scale domestic lab operators who once proliferated.
But so far the violence taking place in Mexico as the cartels battle among themselves has not been exported north of the border.
“We haven’t seen that up here,” said Cesena. “Up here it’s all about making money.”
In recent weeks, law enforcement officers in the Kansas City area have encountered that cartel connection in a big way with seizures and arrests in several large-scale trafficking operations.
Earlier this month, Lawrence police announced the largest meth seizure in Douglas County history — nearly 25 pounds of the drug with a street value of about $1 million.
Because the investigation that led to the seizure is ongoing, police are sharing few details, but Lawrence police spokesman Sgt. Trent McKinley said investigators think the drugs came from Mexico.
“It’s obviously here,” McKinley said of the Mexican cartel connection.
Officials say the turnover in the nature of the meth trade is reflected in these facts: The number of meth lab seizures in the United States has decreased, but the amount of the drug being seized along the border with Mexico has increased.
According to U.S. federal law enforcement statistics, 2,400 kilograms of meth were seized at the Mexican border in 2004. That same year the DEA reported 23,828 “incidents” involving the discovery of domestic meth labs, dump sites or meth-making equipment.
Last year the number of domestic meth incidents decreased to 11,200, while nearly 6,000 kilograms were seized at the border.
Tammy Dickinson, a former assistant prosecutor in Jackson County and now the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri, has seen the change in area courtrooms.
“At the state level in the mid-2000s, we were seeing hundreds of meth labs each year,” Dickinson said. “Labs here have really diminished to nothing. The large quantities being seized are all from Mexico.”
No charges have yet been filed in the Lawrence case, but on Wednesday a Mexican citizen living in the Kansas City area, described in court documents as a “large-scale methamphetamine and cocaine trafficker,” appeared in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, where he is charged in an unrelated case with conspiracy to distribute more than 500 grams of methamphetamine.
The case against Eric Rangel-Ortega alleges multiple drug sales in Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan., that were facilitated by Rangel-Ortega from outside the country. At Wednesday’s hearing, a judge ordered him held without bond as the case is pending.
“Rangel-Ortega has the ability to illegally travel back and forth between the United States and Mexico without detection,” federal agents wrote in the affidavit outlining the allegations. “While in Mexico, Rangel-Ortega directed others to distribute narcotics on his behalf and send him the proceeds in Mexico.”
Cesena said Rangel-Ortega and his confederates were trafficking in methamphetamine and cocaine. One of Rangel-Ortega’s alleged confederates was charged April 19 after a large drug shipment was delivered to him in Kansas City, Kan. The gray Honda Odyssey with Mexican license tags that was used to deliver the drugs crossed the border into Texas on April 16.
After delivering the shipment, the vehicle was heading back toward Mexico when it was stopped on Interstate 35 by Kansas Highway Patrol troopers. Inside the vehicle was $330,000 in cash, according to court documents.
While authorities haven’t said whether they think Rangel-Ortega is specifically affiliated with Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel, three Kansas City men were charged in December in U.S. District Court in St. Louis after a lengthy Drug Enforcement Administration investigation into the Sinaloa and Juarez cartels and their distribution networks.
The three Kansas City men were among seven defendants charged in St. Louis by the DEA with conspiracy, money laundering and possession with the intent to distribute methamphetamine.
“The Sinaloa and Juarez cartels are responsible for bringing multi-ton quantities of narcotics, including cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana, from Mexico into the United States,” the DEA said in a statement announcing those arrests. “These cartels are also believed to be responsible for laundering millions of dollars in criminal proceeds from illegal drug trafficking activities.”
Because of its location along Interstate 35 and Interstate 70, Kansas City is one of the country’s primary conduits for drugs being transported to other parts of the country from the south and west, and for the cash heading back in the opposite direction from larger markets such as Chicago.
The Sinaloa Cartel’s influence in Chicago is so pervasive that earlier this year the Chicago Crime Commission named Guzman the city’s Public Enemy No. 1.
“His agents are working in the Chicago area importing vast quantities of drugs for sale … and collecting and sending to Mexico tens of millions of dollars in drug money,” the crime commission’s president said.
An article published earlier this year by a security-related Mexican think tank described how vast quantities of the precursor drugs used to manufacture meth are illegally imported into Mexico from Asia. Factories in several Mexican states manufacture the drugs, which are then smuggled into the United States. The vast majority enters the country in California, where the traffickers distribute it across the country.
In one recent case, the U.S. Postal Service was used to deliver 7 pounds of methamphetamine to a woman in Topeka. The package was mailed from California. Authorities, tipped off about the shipment, arrested the Topeka woman when she picked up the delivery.
The factory-produced methamphetamine from Mexico often is much purer than that typically seen in domestic meth lab cases, according to law enforcement officials.
In one of the sales Rangel-Ortega allegedly made to undercover officers last fall in Kansas City, testing showed that the methamphetamine was 100 percent pure, according to court documents.
Some think that purity can exacerbate the problems that addicts can have when seeking treatment for the drug.
The number of methamphetamine users seeking treatment in Missouri has been rising in recent years, according to statistics kept by the Missouri Department of Mental Health.
In fiscal 2012, state-run substance abuse treatment programs reported 4,460 admissions. There were 3,729 in fiscal 2010, according to the records.
Judy Chase of the Heartland Center for Behavioral Change in Kansas City said many users think that the purer the drug, the less harmful it is. Because of that, they delay seeking help and suffer more damage to their bodies.
Methamphetamine users can become addicted “fairly quickly,” and besides physical signs such as weight loss and dental problems, users often have psychotic-like symptoms because they go long periods without sleep, she said.
She said the center’s clients say the same thing about the methamphetamine they use: It’s coming from Mexico.