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Meet the drug lords

A guide to the four most notorious drug cartel kingpins in Mexico

A woman walks past a mural depicting a drug addict, a police officer and a car thief in the border city of Tijuana, in this April 18, 2007 photo. Mexico's raging drugs war has killed thousands, and the almost daily scenes of tortured bodies or severed heads has struck fear even in traffickers. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

MEXICO CITY — Despite an army crackdown and vicious turf battles that have led to the capture or killings of thousands of Mexico’s drug traffickers, the most notorious mobsters are still at large. These kingpins are known mostly from grainy old photos and ballads about their “heroic” exploits. But they are alleged to have made billions of dollars from moving cocaine, heroin, marijuana and crystal meth to the United States, and they have armies of hitmen under their commands. Four key kingpins stand out for their power and notoriety.

Read more about increased drug use in Mexico.

Joaquin Guzman

(Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman is seen in Almoloya, Mexico's high security jail in this June 10, 2000 photo. Reuters)

Alias: El Chapo (Shorty)

Cartel: Sinaloa

Born: La Tuna, Sinaloa, 1957

Rewards: $5 million (FBI), $2 million (Mexican PGR)

Bio: Hunted from city mansions to mountain caves but always disappearing in a puff of smoke, the 5-foot-6-inch king of kingpins is indisputably the most high-profile drug trafficker in Mexico today.

Growing up in a ramshackle village in the wild Sierra Madre mountains, Guzman is said to have apprenticed in the drug world under the legendary smuggler Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, alias “The Godfather.”

Following Felix’s 1989 imprisonment for ordering the murder of a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Guzman emerged as one of the top trafficking powers, waging a bloody war against the Tijuana Cartel for control of smuggling routes into California and Arizona.

In 1993, Tijuana Cartel gunmen shot dead Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo in Guadalajara airport. Prosecutors then said the killers had been after Guzman but got the wrong man.

Later that year, Guzman was arrested in Guatemala and extradited to Mexico, where he was incarcerated in a so-called maximum security prison. But in 2001, he escaped by driving out in a laundry truck.

He is accused of using intricate smuggling tunnels to move his drugs, such as one discovered leading into Douglas, Ariz. He also is alleged to be behind one 7-ton shipment of cocaine hidden in cans of chili peppers.

In cities and towns across the country, he is reported to turn up at restaurants with his entourage and pay for everyone’s meals. But dozens of raids and special operations to net him have always come up short.

He reportedly married his third wife, a village beauty queen, on her 18th birthday in 2007.

In May 2008, gunmen killed his son, university student Edgar Guzman, in a murder that is said to have sparked a violent war with the Beltran Leyva Organization.

In 2009, Forbes included Guzman on its billionaire list with a net worth of $1 billion, a feature that was widely criticized in Mexico. 

Ismael Zambada

Aliases: The Mayo Indian, El Rey (The King), The MZ

Cartel: Sinaloa

Born: Sinaloa, 1948

Rewards: $5 million (FBI), $2 million (Mexican PGR)

Bio: Zambada stars less in the media than his ally Chapo but many on the streets of Sinaloa consider him to be the most powerful trafficker in Mexico.

Born to a ranching family, he is said to be a keen agriculturalist with good knowledge of plants and animals. However, he reportedly worked in his youth as a furniture removal man in the Sinaloan state capital Culiacan before stepping into the drug business in the 1970s.

Zambada reportedly moved drugs for many years through the border city of Ciudad Juarez, working closely with Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who was known as the Lord of the Skies because of his fleet of 727 jet airliners used to smuggle cocaine.

But after Carrillo’s 1997 death while having plastic surgery to change his appearance, Zambada is alleged to have set up his own operation moving drugs into Arizona.

In 2003, the so-called Operation Trifecta by U.S. agents netted 240 people allegedly working for Zambada. The U.S. then indicted him for importing 3 tons of cocaine.

Anthony Coulson, the DEA agent in charge of the sting, said, “Zambada is an extremely dangerous criminal whose narcotic trafficking activities are legendary. For more than three decades, he has skillfully aligned with almost every known drug trafficking organization in Mexico.”

Zambada is said to have had plastic surgery several times to successfully avoid arrest.

In March 2009, police arrested his son Vicente Zambada in a plush Mexico City mansion.

(Suspected Mexican drug trafficker Vicente Zambada, son of Ismael Zambada, is presented to the media in Mexico City, March 19, 2009. Daniel Aguilar/Reuters)