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After three years tracking El Chapo, special agent Andrew Hogan got him
But they say the eyes are a window on the soul and when I meet his gaze as we shake hands I can tell at once that this is someone who has confronted far bigger challenges than shifting an unlovely semi in Croydon.
He is in fact Andrew Hogan, 37, a former special agent with America’s DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration). Just as the Great Train Robbers had Slipper of the Yard, Al Capone had Elliot Ness and Billy the Kid had Sheriff Pat Garrett, so Joaquin Archivaldo Guzman-Loera, aka El Chapo, had Hogan.
The notorious drug lord had been on the run for a decade when, in 2011, Hogan put in for a transfer to Mexico City. He intended working with the Mexican authorities to bring down the gangster who was then responsible for supplying half the cocaine snorted in America on the back of a turf war in his homeland that had produced a body count of more than 100,000.
Three years later, after a painstaking operation to track their man as he travelled between his various safe houses in the badlands of his home state of Sinaloa, Hogan and his team cornered him in a hotel in the beach resort of Mazatlan.
Hogan and a massive haul of cocaine
I stared at him and Chapo held my gaze – just for a moment. I had my man
And Hogan was on hand to see El Chapo bundled into the back of his armoured Chevrolet Suburban on the first leg of a journey to face justice in the capital.
Now he has written a book about the dramatic odyssey involved in capturing the pint-sized bandit – El Chapo translates as Shorty – who had become the most notorious criminal of the 21st century. And he has even taken the bold move of dispensing with a nom de plume and publishing under his real name.
“After a lot of self-reflection and talking to my wife and a great friend of mine it was really time to step up and be proud of what I and my teammates had accomplished,” he says.
“For so long, I downplayed the story, kind of hid behind it, but it was time to take it on and say, ‘This happened’, and document it truthfully for posterity. It’s an important piece of history and a success story from the bottom to the top.”
The tale of how a graduate in criminal justice from Kansas State University, who only joined the DEA after being turned down by the Highway Patrol, entrapped America’s public enemy number one reads like a thriller. After teaming up with a Hispanic detective he calls Diego Contreras, Hogan and his partner infiltrated the drugs trade and began money laundering for the mob. On one occasion Hogan packed $ 1.2million into two FedEx boxes and flew it by Learjet to Mexico City.
One of their early triumphs involved the seizure of 6.8 tons of cocaine and $ 6.3million in cash. That case involved 55 defendants from Canada to Colombia, one of whom was a man he calls Carlos Torres-Ramos, whose daughter Jasmine was married to Guzman’s son Jesus. With Carlos out of the game, only one bigger fish remained: El Chapo himself.
It turns out that tracking down a multibillionaire drug baron is less about fast cars and helicopters than tracking text messages on Blackberries. And while Chapo’s texts betrayed him as barely literate, they also showed that he micromanaged his operation to the nth degree.
“There was a strange parallel there between myself and him in a way,” says Hogan. “I didn’t know he was such a guy for detail until we began intercepting his day-to-day communications where he’s worried about the price of jet fuel and the pay-offs to corrupt officials.”
Such pay-offs cost El Chapo millions, with one high-level informant paid $ 100,000 a month. “He had people greased at every level – every level,” says Hogan. “That’s what was most eerie to me – you just didn’t know who you could trust.”
As the net closed in on his quarry in February 2014, Hogan narrowed the search down to five safe houses in Culiacan.
Hogan once packed $ 1.2million into FedEx boxes and flew it to Mexico City
Chapo may have been named the 41st most powerful person in the world by Forbes magazine in 2009 but he had been born into a poor cattleranching family before working his way up the ladder from drug-runner and hitman to cartel chief and never developed the tastes of a lotus-eater.
“He afforded himself almost no luxury,” he says. “The safe houses all had the same simple construction, the same plastic tables and chairs and faux leather couches, maybe a picture or two hanging on the wall, and that was it.”
He adds: “I can’t really say what motivated him for sure. Maybe it was always being that guy at the top, having that power, and the machismo of being the top Mexican of all time. He didn’t necessarily know how the outside world perceived him other than via social media and the news and so he was always trying to validate his status. He was always wanting to tell a story, his rag-to-riches story.”
THE raids on the Culiacan safe houses by Mexican marines directed by Hogan proved fruitless and they soon found out why: a bathtub in one house concealed the entrance to a tunnel into the sewers. El Chapo had eluded them once more. “There was an initial shock,” admits Hogan, who picked up one of the cartel boss’s black baseball caps as a souvenir. “He’s gone again. I’m just another guy in line who has tried and failed. But I knew we had enough.
“We had done our homework. We had done enough to know where he was going to run to if he escaped.”
That turned out to be the Hotel Miramar down the coast in Mazatlan. No fewer than 100 marines were involved in staking out the hotel and searching it room by room. Hogan was checking the perimeter when he heard over the radio that El Chapo had been captured, followed by the words, “Dame un blindado!” – they needed an armoured car to transport their captive.
El Chapo’s escape tunnel
With his pistol in his right hand, Hogan sprinted to his Suburban SUV, threw it into gear and accelerated down the ramp into the Miramar’s underground car park. Peering through the gloom he made out three marines with a shirtless man.
“He had his hands cuffed behind his back,” Hogan writes in his book.”I jumped out of the driver’s seat, wearing Chapo’s black hat and a balaclava, and ran up to the prisoner. We were face-to-face at last. “I couldn’t resist: ‘What’s up, Chapo?’ How strange it must have been for this drug lord to see someone wearing one of his own black hats. Guzman’s eyes bulged, then he flinched, as if he thought he was going to be slugged. I stared at him and Chapo held my gaze – just for a moment. I had my man.”
The drug lord was kept in a maximum security prison as legal proceedings got under way but, as the world knows, he escaped 18 months later via a mile-long tunnel fitted out with a moped on a rail.
Hogan, his wife Laura and their two sons were living in Rome at the time and she vividly remembers finding out the news on Facebook when her husband was on the way to the airport. “I sent him a text right away,” she says. “We would never say his name, we would say ‘C’. I said, ‘C escaped’ and his worry really kicked in. There was that sense of fear flooding in. Even though we were in Italy it felt very real for us.”
El Chapo was deported to the US in January 2017 and remains in jail in Manhattan
Former DEA agent Andrew Hogan in London this week
Fortunately, Guzman was recaptured six months later and this time the Mexican government was taking no chances: he was deported to the US in January 2017 and remains in jail in Manhattan awaiting a trial due to start in September.
The film rights to Hogan’s incendiary account of how he ensnared El Chapo were sold before the book was published and Pearl Harbor director Michael Bay has been lined up to direct it. So who would Laura like to play her husband? “There’s a few in the running,” she says.
“But I would say someone like Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Chris Pine”.
Her husband interrupts: “We’d take Ryan Gosling and his wife Eva Mendes.” Laura laughs.
To order Hunting El Chapo by Andrew Hogan and Douglas Century (HarperCollins, £14.99, free UK delivery), call the Express Bookshop with your debit/credit card on 01872 562310. Or send a cheque to Express Bookshop to: El Chapo Offer, PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ, or order online at expressbookshop.co.uk