Drug kingpin Joaquin
Drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman still controls a vast drug empire. Picture: AFP

Dangerous drug lord’s big plans for Australia

THE man we know as Pedro pushes back his baseball cap and wipes the sweat off his forehead with a rolled up T-shirt.

Beads run down his neck and he creases his mouth into a grin that is meant to be reassuring.

It isn't.

That's because he also has a gun in his right hand, which he has just cocked.

Without warning, he points it up and fires into the ceiling, centimetres from my face. He erupts in laughter

Minutes earlier, I had asked him if I should be worried - a foreigner coming into one of the most dangerous parts of Mexico and asking questions about El Chapo, the man who - even though he is now on trial in the US - still controls this region, if not by direct order now then at least by influence, minions, and fear.

In Sinaloa, Mexico, not much happens without the order, knowledge or consent of the Sinaloa Cartel - the most powerful drug trafficking organisation in the world.

El Chapo is its alleged leader and Pedro, the man who just fired his gun into his ceiling, is El Chapo's cousin.

"Yes, you should be worried. Just the fact you are here," he tells me.

Sinaloa - the home of El Chapo's cartel - is now considered by the US to be more dangerous than Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

In the first half of this year, murders in Mexico rose by 16 per cent - 15,973 in six months. It's the highest since records have been kept and even higher that the peak of Mexico's drug war in 2017.

As a feud escalates between the Jalisco and Sinaloa drug cartels for control of the billion dollar drug trafficking routes, the bodies keep piling up.

And yet here we are, heading in deeper with only Pedro's uneasy smile to reassure us and his itchy trigger finger to do the opposite.

In a world exclusive, Channel 7's Sunday Night has gained dangerous and unprecedented access to the world's biggest drug cartel, culminating in what is believed to be the largest international drug deal ever filmed.

Pedro tells us he is little more than a humble farmer but says his familial ties to El Chapo mean if we have his blessing, we will be protected.

It was this blessing that gets us past the roadblock of Sicarios, gunmen for the cartel, the next day. There were five of them, all carrying submachine guns. One had a neck tattoo from a jail gang in California. Another had the frantic demeanour of a man on ice and someone whose hand should definitely not be on a submachine gun. After a tense confrontation, they waved us through.

It gets us through hikes along mountain trails to hidden fields of poppies, the source of the cartel's heroin trade.

And it gets us to a remote shack in the middle of the night, where 360kg of pure cocaine was casually stacked up against the corner, ready for shipment to the US.

The cocaine ready to be shipped around the world. Picture: Sunday Night
The cocaine ready to be shipped around the world. Picture: Sunday Night


The Sinaloa cartel controls fields of poppies, for its heroin trade. Picture: Sunday Night
The Sinaloa cartel controls fields of poppies, for its heroin trade. Picture: Sunday Night


Over the space of a month, myself and a crew from Sunday Night have worked our way up the cartel's chain of command in a bid to find out if El Chapo's capture had really dented the drug trade like the US and Mexican governments' claim.

We've travelled from Chicago, where former Drug Enforcement Agent Andrew Hogan - who helped catch El Chapo in 2014 - said the cartel was planning to build warehouses in Australia for the drugs they were going to bring in.

We've followed the trail of El Chapo's years-long cat and mouse game with authorities from Culiacan to Los Mochis to Mazatlan and up to Altiplano, the supposedly impenetrable prison from which he escaped through an elaborate tunnel in his shower.

And we've been to New York, where El Chapo is now being held in prison after his most recent capture and extradition to the US.

The 61-year-old defendant is charged with 17 criminal counts, including drug trafficking, conspiring to murder rivals, money laundering and weapons offences. He says he is innocent.

El Chapo was born Joaquin Guzman in the isolated rural town of La Tuna in Sinaloa.

Mexico has been waging a bloody war on the drug trade. Picture: EPA/David Guzman
Mexico has been waging a bloody war on the drug trade. Picture: EPA/David Guzman

In Latin American culture, it is common to give people nicknames based on their physical appearance - Flaco (skinny), Gordo (fatty), Gordito (little fatty).

Joaquín Guzmán is 5' 7" so he got "El Chapo" (shorty).

"He's good to us," his cousin, Pedro, tells us when asked if El Chapo is really the man prosecutors say he is.

"All I can say is that people here in the mountains love him."

It's the same thing his lawyer, Jefrrey Lichtman had told us two weeks earlier in New York.

Lichtmann is a take-no-prisoners New York defence lawyer whose cross-examination technique is described as a "relentless pounding" in which witnesses are "put through a blender" and "shredded".


El Chapo after his arrest. Picture: Sunday Night
El Chapo after his arrest. Picture: Sunday Night


He says he's going to do the same for the "polite, gentle" El Chapo. He doesn't have to prove that the alleged drug boss is a saint. He just has to forensically tear apart the witnesses the US Government has lined up against him.

"There are many seizures in the case … of drugs, of money, of weapons, things like that but ultimately the case requires the cooperators to get a conviction," Lichtman says.

"If the jury does not believe the cooperators, there will be no conviction here.

"Every one of them has an incentive to lie. Every one of them as far as I'm concerned has one mental issue or another that I think renders them unbelievable.

"The government wants the jury to think that every one of these witnesses who have raped, murdered, stolen, dealt drugs, lied every single day of their lives, (that) the moment they signed on to team America, they've completely changed their stripes … and now they're truth tellers."

Getting El Chapo off seems fanciful but prosecutors have learnt not to write off Lichtman.

In 2005, he secured one if the biggest upsets in an American court in years the trial John A. Gotti, Jr, the son of the infamous mob, ended with the dismissal of three murder conspiracy charges, an acquittal on a $25 million securities fraud charge and a deadlocked jury on every remaining count. The media described the verdict as an "unbelievable courtroom upset" and Mr. Lichtman's work as "brilliant".

But will he get off El Chapo, the man the US Government considers one of the deadliest men on the planet?

"I'm not going down without a fight to the death," he says. "I don't go down without a fight to the death in any of my cases and it won't be here either."

Back in Mexico, our journey was taking us deeper and deeper into the Sinaloa cartel … to a remote shack in the middle of the night, surrounded by goats.

We were brought there by a man in a ski mask and his associate, who was bizarrely dressed as PabloEscobar.


Journalist Steve Pennells with members of the Sinaloa cartel. Picture: Sunday Night
Journalist Steve Pennells with members of the Sinaloa cartel. Picture: Sunday Night


They had joked about kidnapping us but said we were under the protection of the Sinaloa Cartel.

They pointed to a wall, where 360kg of pure rock cocaine was piled up in waterproof bricks, ready for shipment.

It's street value roughly 108 million Aussie dollars. But that's conservative. Once it's cut up, it's value on Australian streets could easily be five times that.

Half a billion dollars' worth of drugs casually stacked against a wall in a shed surrounded by goats.

"It's going to be loaded on a boat tonight," they tell us, "Come."


Steve Pennells is a Walkley Award-winning investigative journalist. His world exclusive Sunday Night investigation - El Chapo Inc. - airs on Sunday at 8.15pm on Seven.