Small Wars Journal

SWJ El Centro Book Review – El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World's Most Infamous Drug Lord 

Tue, 07/06/2021 - 9:09pm

SWJ El Centro Book Review – El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World's Most Infamous Drug Lord 

Malcolm Beith


Noah Hurowitz, El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World's Most Infamous Drug Lord. New York: Atria Books, 2021. [ISBN: 978-1982133757, Hardcover, 448 pages]

In spite of the mountain of reporting and court testimony now available on the drug war in Mexico, there’s usually one question that remains unanswered: where do drug trafficking up-and-comers like Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán work before they become kingpins? In a new book, El Chapo: The Untold Story of the World's Most Infamous Drug Lord, Noah Hurowitz does his best to find out. He manages to place Chapo in Zacatecas in his late 20s in the early to mid-80s; through an interview with one of Chapo’s relatives and a 1984 report from Enrique “Kiki” Camarena of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), he draws a connection between Chapo and Juan José Esparragoza-Moreno, aka “El Azul,” in Zacatecas. Like Chapo, El Azul would go on to become a mastermind of the Sinaloa cartel, and to this day, even though he’s been dead since 2014, little is known about him.

The book is a much-needed revisit of the Chapo story. Set to be published on 20 July, it stems from Hurowitz’s coverage of the drug lord’s 2018-2019 trial.[1] Hurowitz covered the proceedings for Rolling Stone, and the book is written in that magazine’s style—fast-paced, at times edgy and first person, light on analysis; but overall, it’s a good read. Hurowitz manages to capture the history of the drug war in Mexico well—it’s brief and snappy, sometimes opinionated, but it’s just right for a non-expert. Hurowitz makes clear to the reader that much of the myth surrounding Chapo is just that—myth—but also does a good job in talking to locals in the Sierra (especially in La Tuna, the hamlet where Chapo was born and where some of his relatives, including his mother, still live).

At one point in the tale—and it is a tale, of Hurowitz and his fixer driving through the winding mountain roads, of hearing a friend in the narco-world has been killed, of strolls through Culiacán with a narcocorrido singer—Hurowitz questions his own motives for writing the book, for continuing to venture into the hills of Sinaloa. “I knew that El Chapo’s story needed to be cast in a more nuanced light, offering a better understanding not just of his exploits but of the place he came from, the time in history he inhabited, the forces of prohibition and foreign policy that shaped the drug trade and helped make him wealthy and left tens of thousands of Mexicans dead and tens of thousands more disappeared.”(p.16) Perhaps he truly felt that, or perhaps he felt he needed to outdo previous journalists who had written about Chapo, yours truly included.

Perhaps he needed to find the truth about Chapo, which he claims in the book was a “lame” answer for his motives when he was asked by a relative of Chapo’s why he was poking around in the hills of Sinaloa. The truth, of course, is that there are many other Chapo books in existence, many of which cover the drug lord’s story well enough. Anabel Hernández’s Los Senores del Narco is the most comprehensive.[2] The Last Narco, which I wrote in 2010, now includes a new afterword summing up a few years of the hunt all the way through to the trial.[3] Alan Feuer, a reporter who covered the trial for the New York Times, released El Jefe: The Stalking of Chapo Guzmán—a fast-paced, detail-packed page-turner of a law enforcement yarn—in August 2020.[4] If Hurowitz is still in doubt over why he kept trekking up to the Sinaloa sierra, I’ll give him a reason: the more reporters, Mexican or foreign, can contribute to the drug war story, the better the DEA and their Mexican counterparts can fight it, and the better informed the public on both sides of the border will be of what is being done in their name and with their taxes. Hurowitz’s book—which at times wanders into debate over the validity and success of the drug war—will not end the drug war, but it will hopefully help lead to better on-the-ground decisions by the military, police, and prosecutors.

Hurowitz also adds to the Chapo story with his well-written recounting of the stories of the IT guy who flipped and became an informant for the FBI (Christian Rodríguez) and long-time associate Miguel Ángel Martínez Martínez . Martínez in particular is a great addition to the Chapo story, largely because he knew the drug lord so well and was so loyal. Any student of the drug war, be they an expert or a journalist, would do well to pore over the sections devoted to his testimony. Any criminology student should bookmark the sections on Christian Rodríguez, given how criminals almost always entrust technology to outsiders. And anyone who missed the trial will be interested to read the details on Chapo’s attempt to make a movie. One of the unanswered questions in the ongoing documentation of this notorious criminal—whether by journalists or law enforcement—is whether he was a showoff or a recluse. The trial and Hurowitz’s book reveal that indeed, Chapo had many sides to him. And much like his predecessors in the drug trade, he did on occasion let his ego—and his greed—get the best of him.


[1] Noah Hurowitz, “Inside the trial of El Chapo.” Rolling Stone. 4 November 2018,

[2] Available in English as Anabel Hernández, Ian Bruce and Lorna Scott Fox, Trans. Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers. New York: Verso. 2013,

[3] Malcolm Beith, The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World's Most Wanted Drug Lord. New York: Grove Press. 2020,

[4] Alan Feuer, El Jefe: The Stalking of Chapo Guzmán. New York: Flatiron Books. 2020,

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Malcolm Beith is a freelance journalist based in Washington DC, focusing on conflict. He is the author of The Last Narco (Grove Press, 2010) and “Hasta El Ultimo Dia,” (Ediciones B, Mexico, 2012) He has a Master’s Degree in War Studies from the University of Glasgow, and maintains contact with official sources in Mexico, the U.S. and elsewhere. A former Newsweek general editor, he has written for Janes Intelligence Weekly, Foreign Policy Magazine, The Sunday Times, National Catholic Reporter and World Politics Review.



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Tue, 08/17/2021 - 1:18am

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The US created the El Chapo's of the world. The Real Villain is the United States of America and its racist drug war, which dictates to the world what plant medicines it can use -- thus establishing Christian Science as a world religion and violating natural law.  The US is the colonialist bad guy who tells other countries to outlaw plant medicines that have been used responsibly by other cultures for millennia, so that the world can be safe for the two most deadly drugs of all: alcohol and tobacco.  And when drug warriors aren't busy invading other countries on the pretext of enforcing these colonialist drug laws, they're reading books like "El Chapo" to get a thrill out of all the guns and violence that the drug war itself brings into the world.  Someday the world will wake up and realize that the drug war itself is causing all the problems it purports to solve.  Then we will exchange the Drug Enforcement Agency for the Drug Education Agency and start learning how to use plant medicines safely rather than to demonize them like so many fanatical Christian Scientists.