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Meet Mexico's drug lords

A guide to the four most notorious drug kingpins

MEXICO CITY — Despite an army crackdown and vicious turf battles that have led to the capture or killings of thousands of Mexico's drug traffickers, the most notorious mobsters are still at large. These kingpins are known mostly from grainy old photos and ballads about their "heroic" exploits. But they are alleged to have made billions of dollars from moving cocaine, heroin, marijuana and crystal meth to the United States, and they have armies of hitmen under their commands. Four key kingpins stand out for their power and notoriety.

Joaquin Guzman

  • Alias: El Chapo (Shorty)
  • Cartel: Sinaloa
  • Born: La Tuna, Sinaloa, 1957
  • Rewards: $5 million (FBI), $2 million (Mexican PGR)

Bio: Hunted from city mansions to mountain caves but always disappearing in a puff of smoke, the 5-foot-6-inch king of kingpins is indisputably the most high-profile drug trafficker in Mexico today.

Growing up in a ramshackle village in the wild Sierra Madre mountains, Guzman is said to have apprenticed in the drug world under the legendary smuggler Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, alias "The Godfather."

Following Felix's 1989 imprisonment for ordering the murder of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Guzman emerged as one of the top trafficking powers, waging a bloody war against the Tijuana Cartel for control of smuggling routes into California and Arizona.

In 1993, Tijuana Cartel gunmen shot dead Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo in Guadalajara airport. Prosecutors then said the killers had been after Guzman but got the wrong man.

Later that year, Guzman was arrested in Guatemala and extradited to Mexico, where he was incarcerated in a so-called maximum security prison. But in 2001, he escaped by driving out in a laundry truck.

He is accused of using intricate smuggling tunnels to move his drugs, such as one discovered leading into Douglas, Ariz. He also is alleged to be behind one 7-ton shipment of cocaine hidden in cans of chili peppers.

In cities and towns across the country, he is reported to turn up at restaurants with his entourage and pay for everyone's meals. But dozens of raids and special operations to net him have always come up short.

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He reportedly married his third wife, a village beauty queen, on her 18th birthday in 2007.

In May 2008, gunmen killed his son, university student Edgar Guzman, in a murder that is said to have sparked a violent war with the Beltran Leyva Organization.

In 2009, Forbes included Guzman on its billionaire list with a net worth of $1 billion, a feature that was widely criticized in Mexico. 

Ismael Zambada

  • Aliases: The Mayo Indian, El Rey (The King), The MZ
  • Cartel: Sinaloa
  • Born: Sinaloa, 1948
  • Rewards: $5 million (FBI), $2 million (Mexican PGR)

Bio: Zambada stars less in the media than his ally Chapo but many on the streets of Sinaloa consider him to be the most powerful trafficker in Mexico.

Born to a ranching family, he is said to be a keen agriculturalist with good knowledge of plants and animals. However, he reportedly worked in his youth as a furniture removal man in the Sinaloan state capital Culiacan before stepping into the drug business in the 1970s.

Zambada reportedly moved drugs for many years through the border city of Ciudad Juarez, working closely with Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who was known as the Lord of the Skies because of his fleet of 727 jet airliners used to smuggle cocaine.

But after Carrillo's 1997 death while having plastic surgery to change his appearance, Zambada is alleged to have set up his own operation moving drugs into Arizona.

In 2003, the so-called Operation Trifecta by U.S. agents netted 240 people allegedly working for Zambada. The U.S. then indicted him for importing 3 tons of cocaine.

Anthony Coulson, the DEA agent in charge of the sting, said, "Zambada is an extremely dangerous criminal whose narcotic trafficking activities are legendary. For more than three decades, he has skillfully aligned with almost every known drug trafficking organization in Mexico."

Zambada is said to have had plastic surgery several times to successfully avoid arrest.

In March 2009, police arrested his son Vicente Zambada in a plush Mexico City mansion.

Heriberto Lazcano

  • Aliases: The Executioner, El Lazca, Z-3
  • Cartel: Los Zetas (Cartel del Golfo)
  • Born: Veracruz, circa 1976
  • Reward: $2 million (Mexican PGR)

Bio: Little is known about Lazcano himself, but his bloody band of enforcers — Los Zetas — are feared across Mexico as one of the most violent groups in the whole drug war.

Born near the Gulf of Mexico, Lazcano enlisted in the military as a young man and was selected to join the prestigious and highly trained Airborne Special Forces Group.

The unit was sent north to battle drug gangs trafficking over the border into Texas. But Lazcano and 30 other special force soldiers went for the gold, and defected to work with the Gulf Cartel.

The new drug army was christened the Zetas after the radio signal the special forces had used. Lazcano was Z-3, or the third in command. However, when the two commanders above him were killed and captured, he took the reins of the merciless paramilitary force.

Under Lazcano, the Zetas recruited and trained large numbers of other traffickers, turning the Zetas into a fearsome force that stretched its tentacles throughout the east and south of Mexico.

Lazcano is said to be protected by a cadre of extremely loyal bodyguards. He reportedly keeps constantly on the move to avoid arrest. 

Arturo Beltran Leyva

  • Alias: El Barbas (The Beard)
  • Cartel: Beltran Leyva Organization
  • Born: Sinaloa, circa 1960
  • Reward: $2 million (Mexican PGR)

Bio: Another son of Sinaloa, Beltran Leyva shot to fame in 2008 for allegedly bribing and killing top officials and running fierce groups of paramilitary gunmen.

Growing up in the Sinaloan countryside, Beltran Leyva is reported to have worked closely with "Chapo" Guzman during decades of smuggling.

In 2004 and 2005, he allegedly led powerful groups of assassins, including members of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha street gang, to fight for trade routes in northeastern Mexico.

In January 2008, Beltran Leyva's brother Alfredo "The Giant Ant" Beltran Leyva was arrested in the Sinaloan state capital Culiacan.

In apparent revenge for the detention, he sent gangs of assassins to go after top federal officials in the Mexican capital.

One group of these hitmen was captured in a Mexico City house with dozens of automatic rifles, pistols, M4 grenade launchers, 30 grenades, and bullet-proof jackets bearing the legend FEDA — the Spanish acronym for Special Forces of Arturo.

In May 2008, an assassin allegedly paid by Beltran Leyva killed acting federal police chief Edgar Millan inside his own home in Mexico City.

Later in 2008, several high-ranking federal officials were accused of taking bribes from Beltran Leyva of up to $450,000 per month.

Beltran Leyva is believed to have broken with his old ally Guzman in 2008 and fought a violent turf war against him that led to hundreds of deaths on the streets of Sinaloa.

In January 2009, there were reports the two sides agreed to a truce.

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This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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