I’d absolutely met my match with El Chapo. Although we were both ingrained heavily in our own operations, I always felt like I had to catch him up, because he was always one step ahead. He’d studied the previous operations that the US and Mexican governments had put together on him and learned from them. He really did his homework and had 11 years of hard study on me by the time I came on to the case. But I was ready to catch up.
The hunt shifted in gear when he escaped from me through a tunnel under his bath. It wasn’t a shock that he got away. We’d raided one of his safehouses in Culiacán. When I knew he was inside that location it just seemed too easy. All I felt was, “All right, where do we go from here? What’s next?” I knew we would have a second chance. It was my ‘game on’ moment.
“What’s up, Chapo-o-o-o!” was the first thing that I said to him when we finally got him. I hadn’t imagined a scenario for how it would play out. I just yelled the first thing that came into my mind.
It happened in an underground parking garage beneath a hotel we were raiding. After “they’ve got the target” crackled over the radio, I drove to him with pure tunnel vision. Like, pinhole tunnel vision. When I arrived, I couldn’t make out what was happening through the darkness and the flashlights but there was a guy on the ground. The Marines stood him up and I ran over, jumped into his face, yelled at him and patted him on the back. I can’t imagine what he thought of me. But that moment where we locked eyes for a second, it was just surreal. It was him, after so long. We hardly had pictures of the guy to work with during the investigation, and now I’m looking at him right in the face. In the flesh.
I thought I’d be doing cartwheels down the corridors of the embassy after the capture. In reality, I was walking like a zombie. I was left with a huge void. An aching hollowness.
The feeling hung around for several months.
I spent a long time trying to figure out what that meant, internally. And I found my answer – I’d fulfilled the DEA mission in one swoop. Who could I go after next? Who was bigger than Chapo? I was ready for that next guy but that guy didn’t exist. I knew it was time to leave.
It was never personal between us. I have nothing against that guy. I actually had respect for him in his ability to outrun us for so long. But unlike any other agent who targeted him, I didn’t care about how many tonnes of drugs he was moving. I didn’t care about the women he was banging. All I cared about was his location. If you become a fan of your nemesis, you become distracted. Your full focus should always be on the challenge of beating them. In my case, on the challenge of the hunt.
I was in Italy in 2011, in a cab to the airport, when my wife texted me: “C just escaped.” This guy has that much control where he’s able to just walk out of jail? It felt like the entire world was conspiring against me. Even my taxi driver. I was looking at him through the mirror and I felt like he was in on it, that he’d just kidnapped me. I didn’t know what was right or real any more.
His story is not over. I’ll bet on it. Today he’s locked up again, by himself for 23 hours a day in downtown New York and his family have written him off. I don’t think he’ll ever escape from the US prison system, but he’s extremely clever. Something will happen yet.
Hunting El Chapo by Andrew Hogan and Douglas Century is out now (HarperCollins)