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El Cholo Iván, the violent bodyguard in the shadow of El Chapo Guzmán

The extradition to the United States of Jorge Iván Gastélum, hitman and great strategist, means the fall of “the last piece on El Chapo’s chessboard”

Ivan Gastelum aka "El Cholo Ivan", who is Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's  is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican navy marines
Jorge Iván Gastélum, aka El Cholo Iván, is escorted to a federal hangar in Mexico City, on January 8, 2016.Eduardo Verdugo (AP)

The last escape of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, El Chapo, was through a sewer. Almost six months after escaping from the high security prison of El Altiplano through a 1,500 meter tunnel, and after playing cat and mouse with justice in the mountains, the boss of the Sinaloa Cartel had a moment of weakness. He wanted to go to Los Mochis. His security chief, Jorge Iván Gastélum, alias El Cholo Iván, opposed the idea. After embarrassing the Mexican government with his escapes, it was preferable for the drug trafficker to keep a low profile and avoid cities. But El Chapo did not listen to reason. When, in January 2016, a Navy operation surrounded the house where they were hiding, he and El Cholo dragged themselves through a kilometer and a half of sewers, “among the feces and rot,” says Miguel Ángel Vega, an expert in the Sinaloa Cartel.

A federal police checkpoint intercepted them in a stolen car. The two men were taken to the Hotel Doux, where the Navy took control of the situation. “It was a chase out of a movie. When two patrol cars blocked the highway, El Chapo tried to bribe them, but the agents did not budge. I believe that the federal police never knew who El Chapo and El Cholo were,” continues Vega, one of the journalists with the most access to the Sinaloa Cartel.

In a photo of the arrest, El Chapo appears with a pensive expression, with his head reclining in the back seat of a car, his left hand resting on his chin. He wears a tank top with traces of filth from the escape attempt. Next to him, with his gaze fixed on the ground, a defeated gesture and a scar on his left shoulder, sits El Cholo Iván. Guzmán Loera was extradited to the United States in 2017. This weekend, Gastélum followed in his footsteps, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office (FGR) confirmed this Sunday in a statement.

Jorge Iván Gastélum, aka "El Cholo Iván", with Joaquín Guzmán Loera, aka "El Chapo",
El Cholo Iván with his boss, El Chapo Guzmán, in a vehicle after his arrest in January 2016.SEGOB

El Cholo Iván, “accused of belonging to a criminal organization and one of the bosses of the Sinaloa plaza, responsible for trafficking various amounts of drugs to the United States of America,” according to Mexican authorities, will be tried by the Federal District Court of the District of Columbia, in New York, for drug conspiracy and use of a firearm in relation to drug trafficking. “El Cholo Iván, after El Chapo, I think was the most important piece for the United States government to seize. He is perhaps the last piece on El Chapo’s chessboard. He was the personal security coordinator for El Chapo’s every movement. He was with him all the time, wherever he went. He knew everything. That’s why they had their eyes well on him,” explains Vega.

After being arrested along with El Chapo in January 2016, El Cholo Iván went to prison. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs granted his extradition to be prosecuted in December 2020, but Gastélum had managed to hold out in Mexico until now thanks to a series of injunctions. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the same one that claimed the drug trafficker, also wants to try Ovidio Guzmán, one of the sons of El Chapo, arrested last January.

Along with his brothers Iván Archivaldo and Jesús Alfredo, Ovidio Guzmán was the head of Los Chapitos, one of the factions of the Sinaloa Cartel that was formed after the arrest of El Chapo. “El Cholo was a fundamental piece. It is possible that his extradition is the preamble for him to eventually testify against Ovidio. They may be preparing a trial against him, and they want all the necessary elements,” Vega argues.

“Thanks to the FGR for the delivery of the defendant required by the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia for various crimes related to drug trafficking and crimes of use of weapons. We are committed to our shared security,” the US Embassy in Mexico said on Twitter. Vega, however, downplays the value of the capture: “We must remember that El Cholo Iván was arrested in 2016. His extradition no longer has any weight within the structure [of the Cartel]. The rearrangements occurred many years ago. It is history now. The United States took too long to extradite.”

El Chapo Guzman's security chief handed over to the United States
Elements of the FGR escort Jorge Iván Gastélum to extradite him, this Sunday.FISCALÍA GENERAL DE LA REPÚBLICA DE MÉXICO (FISCALÍA GENERAL DE LA REPÚBLICA)

The legend of El Cholo

Cholo Iván was a violent, intelligent and strategic man. He became part of the Sinaloa Cartel around 2008, when the war against drugs unleashed by former President Felipe Calderón began to accumulate deaths throughout the country. Gastélum began as a gunman and rose through the ranks of the criminal organization. By 2016, the police had already tried to catch him on several occasions. During an operation in 2012, they killed his partner, the model Susana Flores. He managed to escape.

By the time he was arrested, he was already a plaza boss in Guamúchil, a town north of Culiacán that El Chapo used as a watchtower to ensure that no other cartel entered his territory. “They were in a constant war with other criminal groups. El Cholo became a legend. He is intelligent and determined and was not afraid. When there was a confrontation, he went to the front,” says Vega. “He had a lot of people at his service, about 200 or 300. When they moved through the mountains they were like an army. El Cholo was very good at coordinating. He had almost military strategies.” The Mexican government placed him on its list of 122 priority targets to capture.

In a video released this Sunday by the Mexican Prosecutor’s Office, the defendant is seen with a pixelated face and a cream-colored prison jumpsuit. He walks down a corridor, guarded by at least five armed agents who put him in a white van with the Interpol emblem. “The fugitive was handed over at the Mexico City International Airport to US agents,” the Public Ministry said. Like El Chapo and former Public Security Secretary Genaro García Luna —convicted by a jury in Brooklyn, but awaiting the judge’s sentence—, the Sinaloan hitman’s future is now in the hands of a New York court.

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