Mr. Guzmán, who began his career as a lowly marijuana farmer, set himself apart from his competitors, prosecutors have said, by shipping Colombian cocaine into Texas, Arizona and California with such speed and efficiency that he earned the early nickname “El Rapido.” By the end of the decade, his success encouraged him to expand his territory, a decision, court papers said, that ignited a war with his rivals in the Tijuana drug cartel.
As part of that war, a Mexican official of the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, was assassinated in 1993 at an airport in Guadalajara, setting off a nationwide manhunt for Mr. Guzmán. Though Mr. Guzmán was eventually caught and served eight years in prison, he was able to maintain — even grow — his empire, prosecutors have said. But then in a move that would soon become his calling card, he escaped from custody in 2001, hidden in the bottom of a laundry cart.
After his escape, prosecutors said, Mr. Guzmán fled to the mountains near Culiacán in his home state of Sinaloa. To thwart recapture, he assembled what the government has called “an army of hundreds of heavily armed body guards“ and set up a sophisticated communications network of encrypted devices and “multiple insulating layers of go-betweens.”
His escape coincided with a crucial transformation in the drug trade. In the early 2000s, new extradition laws were passed in Colombia, putting the country’s traffickers at risk for prosecution in the United States. As a result, the government says, the Colombians abandoned their American distribution routes. Mr. Guzmán stepped into the vacuum, prosecutors said, and soon created his own routes in New York, New Jersey, Texas, Illinois and Georgia.
With profits pouring in at “staggering levels,” prosecutors said, Mr. Guzmán began to extend his operations not only in the United States and Mexico, but also in Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama, where he established a series of secret landing strips and started using submarines capable of shipping up to six tons of cocaine. Soon after, the government said, he embedded operatives in South America to guard his supply chain and diversified his business into heroin and marijuana. When he became interested in dealing methamphetamine, he dispatched associates to India and China, according to the government, to search for the ingredients that were used to make the drug.
It was during this period that Mr. Guzmán became the mythic figure he remains today — ”a modern-day Robin Hood,” the government said, beloved by “the downtrodden and extolled in popular songs.” Prosecutors said he surrounded himself with professional assassins who killed and tortured his rivals, and personally carried a gold-plated AK-47 and a diamond-encrusted pistol. According to court papers, he once gave a $1 million bribe — in cash — to Mexican law-enforcement officers to protect a single drug shipment.
But as Mr. Guzmán’s infamy increased, so did the efforts to catch him. In 2014, the Mexican special forces tracked him down to a house in Culiacán, but ultimately lost him when he escaped through a hatch in his bathtub that led to a maze of tunnels he had built inside the sewer system. After a monthslong search, he was captured in Mazatlán and put back into prison. In 2015, however, Mr. Guzmán escaped again — this time, through a mile-long tunnel dug into the shower of his cell. A video made at the time showed him, as prosecutors have put it, “calmly descending a ladder into the tunnel where a motorcycle was waiting.”
The United States attorney’s office in Brooklyn indicted Mr. Guzmán in absentia in 2009, but after he was rearrested in 2016 — found in his undershirt and covered in filth near a Walmart in the city of Los Mochis — they filed a series of additional charges. Those were used to win his extradition from Mexico last January. Though he now resides in a tiny cell in Manhattan’s federal jail, incommunicado and locked in isolation, the government still considers him a threat.
“Guzmán’s worldwide fame has resulted in his appearance in Forbes magazine’s most powerful and wealthy person lists,” prosecutors wrote. “These last few decades have shown that Guzmán’s influence knows no bounds.”