Hunting escaped drug boss El Chapo: For the DEA’s Jack Riley, it’s personal

·Chief Investigative Correspondent
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Jack Riley points out local Mexican drug cartel problem areas on a map in Chicago in 2012.  (Photo: M. Spencer Green/AP)

The new hit Netflix TV series “Narcos” (Watch Narcos Online | Netflix) highlights the bloody war between two Drug Enforcement Administration agents and Pablo Escobar, the ruthless Colombian cocaine boss killed in a shootout in 1993. But there is an equally dramatic war playing out right now involving the DEA’s No. 2 official, Jack Riley. His nemesis: Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, chief of the murderous Sinaloa Cartel, now considered the world’s biggest drug trafficking organization and source of much of the heroin pouring into the United States. 

“Just so you know, I was going to retire — until this dick escaped,” Riley, who was once the target of an assassination plot by El Chapo’s operatives, tells Yahoo News. And now, he adds, “I’m in it for the long haul.”    

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Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican navy marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City in 2014. He had been captured in the beach resort town of Mazatlan. (Photo: Eduardo Verdugo/AP)

U.S. officials say that since he escaped from a Mexican prison three months ago, vanishing through a mile-long tunnel, Guzman has reasserted control over the cartel. The organization is opening up new markets on the East Coast, they say, and by using inner-city street gangs to distribute drugs, helping to fuel a heroin epidemic that is causing a spike in murders and overdose deaths across the country.          

In a recent exclusive interview at his corner office overlooking the Pentagon, Riley, 57, the DEA’s acting deputy administrator, explains why El Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel are such a threat — and why, perhaps more than anybody else in the U.S. government, he wants him locked up for good. 

Yahoo News: When El Chapo escaped from that prison in July, it looked to many like he had inside help. Were Mexican prison officials paid off to look the other way?

Jack Riley: You saw the tunnel. Pretty tough to build without somebody knowing what’s going on.

You and El Chapo have a history dating back to when you became DEA’s special agent in charge in El Paso in 2007. What happened?

If you look at what was going on [across the border] in Juarez at that time, there were daily beheadings. There were people hanging off of overpasses. There were law enforcement [agents] on “hit lists” that would appear in parks. … I had just arrived there, as the [DEA] boss. I’d given an interview to a Juarez-based newspaper. I was told later [El Chapo] actually [owned] a piece of it, or had somebody in there. What I said was, “I was here. I was going after Chapo. We were going to target his organization and most importantly, him.” He didn’t like it at all.

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View of the hole in the shower of the Altiplano prison through which Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped, pictured on July 15. (Photo: Yuri Cortez/AFP)

How do you know that?

Several days later, we got information [from wiretaps] there were some people negotiating a price [to kill me]. I tell you — it kind of got my attention.

Did you listen to the wiretaps?

I saw a transcript — and the transcript basically said, “What do you think Chapo would give for us to shut him up and cut his head off.” The joke is, they talked about [only] $100,000 — which pissed me off.

What did you do?

I got to tell you for a while there, I was seeing things. My wife and son kind of went north for a little while. … What bothers me the most is I did exactly what that dick wanted me to do. I got scared — and I started looking over my shoulder. And that’s what he intended for me to do. And that’s why I hope he’s feeling the same thing right now.

Is he still after you?

We have informants coming in all the time. I still do today — they’ll call today. They’ll debrief somebody in Durango, and they’ll say, “They want to know where Jack Riley is.”

What is the key to his success?

One of the reasons he’s been successful is he’s used the media. There are folk songs written about him. There is the Robin Hood theory that he builds soccer fields and water purification. I’ve never seen any evidence of that, but he tries to paint himself that way. The only thing I know is he’s a stone-faced killer. … Coming from Chicago, they used to ask me all the time, how would you equate Chapo and Sinaloa to the old Chicago outfit. And I used to say, he would eat them alive. It wouldn’t even be a battle.

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Support for Mexican cartel chief Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is strong in his native northwestern state of Sinaloa, where many see him as a sort of Robin Hood-like figure. (Photo: Fernando Brito/AFP)

You talking about Al Capone?

Yeah, all those guys. That’s how sinister this guy is.

When El Chapo got captured in a major operation last year, you said that was the best day of your life.

I remember where I was. My wife was buying a refrigerator for the house. I got the phone call, I walked across the street from the appliance store, went into a tavern, and I’ll bet I drank 12 beers in about 15 minutes. I was ecstatic. Then when they called [this year] and told me he was on the move again, I couldn’t believe it.

In your recent testimony to Congress, you said heroin seizures at the border have more than doubled over the last five years — and the size of the loads coming in have increased significantly. How is the stuff getting across?

Virtually any way you can imagine — from an 18-wheeler to inside a gas tank on a mobile home to a guy doing a backstroke in the Rio Grande with a backpack. Sinaloa probably has the best financed research and development of any so-called corporation in the world. Whatever they come up with, they’re going to try.

How does an 18-wheeler with heroin get across the border?

Very sophisticated traps. I’ve seen traps built into the ceiling — even if they X- ray them they are tough to find. The people on the other end are the only people that open the traps. So they can’t get ripped off in between. They are extremely well compartmentalized in terms of who has access to it. Look at his relationship with the Colombians — they’re using semisubmersible submarines. I’m telling you, if they can think of it, they’ve got the funds to try it.

Donald Trump says he wants to build a wall across the border. Would that make a difference?

I’m all for anything that would make a difference in stopping criminals and the flow of drugs. I’m a cop. Whatever the policymakers decide, I’ll work with.

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A federal police officer shows a reward notice for information leading to the capture of drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who escaped from the Altiplano maximum security prison. (Photo: Marco Ugarte/AP)

Are we doing enough?

When you look at the relationships between street gangs and these people — wow. And then you throw in the supply of illegal guns, I don’t know. It’s tough. It’s tough.

Are you watching “Narcos”?

I know both [of the DEA agents depicted] Steve [Murphy] and Javier [Pena] really well. You know what I don’t like about it? I don’t like the subtitles. But that was a great time for DEA. A lot of what we learned in Colombia, we are using today. In terms of cooperation, sharing information. People think I’m crazy. You know what Chapo is most afraid of? That cops are talking to cops. That’s what he’s most worried about. For years he’s planned that they won’t take that seizure in southern Kentucky and connect it to his organization in Chicago. Well, we are now. That’s how you dismantle organizations.

You have a war room for El Chapo?

We do. I start my day at 8:30 every morning in that room. It’s the command center. Everybody understands their role — and quite frankly, we know more about him and his organization than we did a year and a half ago when he first got locked up. So that’s why I’m optimistic.”

Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar in NARCOS season 1. (Photo: Daniel Daza / ©Netflix / Courtesy: Everett Collection)

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