Mr. Guzmán, who began his career as a lowly marijuana farmer, set himself apart from his competitors, prosecutors have said, by shipping Colombian cocaine into Texas, Arizona and California with such speed and efficiency that he earned the early nickname “El Rapido.” By the end of the decade, his success encouraged him to expand his territory, a decision, court papers said, that ignited a war with his rivals in the Tijuana drug cartel.
As part of that war, a Mexican official of the Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo, was assassinated in 1993 at an airport in Guadalajara, setting off a nationwide manhunt for Mr. Guzmán. Though Mr. Guzmán was eventually caught and served eight years in prison, he was able to maintain — even grow — his empire, prosecutors have said. But then in a move that would soon become his calling card, he escaped from custody in 2001, hidden in the bottom of a laundry cart.
After his escape, prosecutors said, Mr. Guzmán fled to the mountains near Culiacán in his home state of Sinaloa. To thwart recapture, he assembled what the government has called “an army of hundreds of heavily armed body guards“ and set up a sophisticated communications network of encrypted devices and “multiple insulating layers of go-betweens.”
His escape coincided with a crucial transformation in the drug trade. In the early 2000s, new extradition laws were passed in Colombia, putting the country’s traffickers at risk for prosecution in the United States. As a result, the government says, the Colombians abandoned their American distribution routes. Mr. Guzmán stepped into the vacuum, prosecutors said, and soon created his own routes in New York, New Jersey, Texas, Illinois and Georgia.
With profits pouring in at “staggering levels,” prosecutors said, Mr. Guzmán began to extend his operations not only in the United States and Mexico, but also in Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador and Panama, where he established a series of secret landing strips and started using submarines capable of shipping up to six tons of cocaine. Soon after, the government said, he embedded operatives in South America to guard his supply chain and diversified his business into heroin and marijuana. When he became interested in dealing methamphetamine, he dispatched associates to India and China, according to the government, to search for the ingredients that were used to make the drug.
It was during this period that Mr. Guzmán…