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Help! My Boss Is El Chapo

On an impromptu gravel track near the Mexican city of Durango, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, came out of his damaged Cessna 206 feeling lucky to be alive.

He already knew one thing for sure. Miguel Angel Martínez, the inexperienced young pilot who had recruited to transport cocaine from Colombia, was not working.

Two months earlier, a plane that Mr. Martínez had co-piloted ended the gas as it approached and broke the cart. This time, it landed so ineptly that the propeller hit the ground.

The chief gave Mr. Martínez an improper performance review. "Mr. Guzmán told me that I was a really bad driver and he did not want me to continue working for him as a driver," he said. The broader question, of course, was what El Chapo intended to do next.

When junior employees of most companies commit a series of blatant errors, they know what to expect from their supervisors. I will need you to clean the desk. When your boss is the alleged pin of the Sinaloa cartel, the protocol is a little different. When your employees have seen enough to testify against you, firing them is not an option.

Mr. The current federal drug-dealing process in Guzmán, New York, where Martínez told this story in a testimony, lifted the veil over a sprawling operation that invaded the United States with 4,000 tons of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine. But witnesses have also offered a look at something even more elusive: like a real drug lord manages to manage people.

  Help! My boss is El Chapo


Photographic illustration by Sean McCabe; IDENTITY CARD: Archivo / ZUMA Press

Within the alleged criminal activity of Mr. Guzmán, talent and work performance were less important than unconditional loyalty. In fact, an abundant brain energy could be dangerous. In a company where CEOs never retire, many ambitious lieutenants will become restless and, in some cases, try to overthrow the boss.

In 1987, when Martínez failed that landing, El Chapo had only two realistic options, none of which was ideal. He could forgive the pilot and give him another job, or he could have him shot.

Mr. The Guzmán armed guard preferred the second option. "He wanted to kill me," Martínez told the court.

After quietly persuading his henchman to sheathe his weapon, El Chapo pulled aside Martínez. He had finished flying, but he would not have died. In fact, he was getting a promotion.

Mr. Guzmán wanted to open an office in Mexico City to serve as a cornerstone to distribute bribes to his growing network of corrupt police officers and government officials, and he asked Mr. Martínez to direct him.

In 1987, witnesses said that Mr. Guzmán had only a small number of employees, including family members. It was a practical head that still helped to load and unload its cocaine shipments. He must have guessed that saving Mr. Martínez could earn his loyalty for life, so he was less upset in beating him than trying to train him.

Running away from prison twice and avoiding an attempted murder, Mr. Guzmán, who pleaded not guilty to all 17 chiefs in his federal indictment, including the conspiracy for murder, became for some a popular hero. The federal marshals rebuked the spectators outside the court for waving or even a thumbs-up.

His defense team claims he was a bit of a player in the drug world and that US forces have inflated his reputation to make it look like a big trophy of what it really is.

  El Chapo ran a complex network of assassins, guards, pilots and engineers. A Chicago federal prosecutor refers to an organization chart in 2015.

El Chapo ran a complex network of assassins, guards, pilots and engineers. A Chicago federal prosecutor refers to an organization chart in 2015.


Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

Witnesses affirm that, as the cartel leader, El Chapo participated in endless meetings and handled family matters to any CEO: sales, finance, pricing, distribution, marketing, quality control and management of risk. At his height, they say, he employed dozens of assassins, security guards, pilots, engineers, accountants and secretaries; he owned airplanes, ships, motorboats, submarines, tank trucks and rail cars and ran dozens of warehouses.

But the particular needs of the cartel, such as the creation of shell companies, money laundering and the investment of millions in military-level bribes and weapons, have added a high degree of complexity. To maximize their profits and stay out of jail, rival leaders had no choice but to work together.

Managing a criminal enterprise on this scale made El Chapo aggressively paranoid. Witnesses say he bought scramblers to avoid detection and used interception devices to spy on rivals and monitor his own people. He showed no mercy to those who crossed him.

At the same time, he made his workers with gifts, treated them with deference and often tolerated their stupid mistakes. In a conversation with a merchant who had asked for a heroin discount, Mr. Guzmán said, "We're here at your service, you know." In another recording, he calmly begged a lieutenant to stop beating police. "They are the ones who help," he said.

The office of Mexico City Martínez opened for the boss did not have a sign saying "Sign of Sinaloa", of course. "We pretended to be lawyers," he testified. El Chapo, which in the past could have gone unnoticed in the street, appeared almost every day.

The chief has become dear to his pungent former pilot taking him on a sentimental visit to his hometown, La Tuna, and refusing to let him carry a gun for fear of injury. When El Chapo asked to be the godfather of his newborn son, Mr. Martínez did not hesitate. "I was happy", he testified.

  Members of the Sinaloa cartel after their arrest in Peru in 2014. For the workers of El Chapo, talent was less important than loyalty.

Members of the Sinaloa cartel after their arrest in Peru in 2014. For the workers of El Chapo, talent was less important than loyalty.



Building ties of affection with a newly competent employee is not something we often associate with sociopaths. But the list of star witnesses in the El Chapo trial suggests it may have been a prudent move.

The most damning testimony against him does not involve the occasional mistake of the employees; he came from the creative betrayal of his best and brighter. Pedro Flores, a prolific Chicago drug dealer whom Mr. Guzmán had personally courted, contacted the forces of the order and began to record conversations in an attempt to save his family from a life of crime. Cristian Rodríguez, a Colombian IT wizard who built the secure communications network of the cartel, delivered the cryptographic keys to the FBI.

In 1993, Martínez testified that he ran all the companies of Mr. Guzmán. He stored, packed and shipped drugs to the United States and received and exchanged money. The pilot who had initially signed for $ 25,000 a flight had become El Tololoche – a rich narcoexecutivo with, as advocated by defense lawyers, a prodigious cocaine habit.

When Martínez was arrested and sent to a Mexican prison, his patronage compadre ended abruptly. He claimed to have survived a gunshot, a grenade attack, and two other attempts on his life that were ordered by Mr. Guzmán. He was eventually extradited to the United States, where he agreed to testify and was placed in the witness protection program.

The lesson on leadership here is murky. Should legitimate CEOs put loyalty before talents and treat employees as family members, all while obsessively spying on them? I do not think so. The main reason this model worked for El Chapo is that even a moron can sell drugs to the Americans.

In the end, perhaps, the only thing that this process will contribute to the management fee is a new entry in the list of dubious terms companies have used to describe their approach to human resources.

GE once practiced "rank and yank". Other societies live according to the motto "hire slowly, shoot quickly". If the Sinaloa cartel had chosen a management slogan, it could have been "coddle or kill"

Write to Sam Walker on sam.walker@wsj.com

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