For a physically small guy, Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera is - or at least was - worth a big sum of money. Better known to the world as ‘El Chapo’, the Mexican is the world’s most famous living drug lord and is currently serving ‘life plus 30 years’ in jail.
What most of us are always keen to know with these big-time crime kingpins is how much they’re worth. The answers are usually enough to discredit the age-old notion that ‘crime doesn’t pay’.
So what is El Chapo’s net worth, exactly? Well, it’s not an easy question to answer, necessarily. As you can no doubt appreciate, cartel bosses don’t tend to keep detailed, open-book accounts.
Understanding the numbers
Net worth is a reasonable way to work out how much a person is worth, financially. You’re not just getting a bank balance, you’re getting the monetary value of all the person’s assets, including any property they own. All assets and liabilities are taken into account, giving a bigger picture and hopefully a more accurate figure.
The trouble is, as we say, criminals aren’t exactly very open about their assets and liabilities. There may be some estimating and guesswork involved in approximating El Chapo’s net worth. And a few different ways of working it out.
Just where did all the money come from?
El Chapo was the leader of The Sinaloa Cartel, the main supplier of drugs to the US for decades. He was principally responsible for those successful drug trafficking operations between Mexico and America.
Guzmán is thought to have handled more than 600,000kg of cocaine, 200kg of heroin, and at least 400,000kg of marijuana during his 30 years as the cartel's leader, according to The New York Times. Not to mention such an enormous amount of methamphetamine that it’s almost impossible to put a number on it.
The Sinaloa Drug Cartel supplied more than 25% of the illegal drugs imported into America during El Chapo’s rule. According to Forbes magazine, the drug cartel generated an estimated $3 billion in revenue annually.
The forfeit El Chapo had to pay on his 2019 sentencing
Infamous for his two daring prison escapes, it seems unlikely that the former drug baron will pull off a third break. His ‘Supermax prison’ in Colorado (ADX Florence) is widely regarded as almost entirely escape-proof.
When he was sent down in July 2019, he was ordered to forfeit $12.6 billion, the figure El Chapo is believed to have earned from his illicit career. Of course, it’s almost impossible that he paid that figure. The amount is his total earnings. His revenue, not profit. Drug running isn’t a cheap business to be in. Logistics, pay-offs and money laundering all cost. Plus in those decades of operating, the man would’ve spent a lot of the money he took as profit.
While the full amount was not - in any likelihood - taken from Guzmán, it seems likely that most of his overall wealth was seized.
Some realistic net worth estimates from finance experts
Without doubt, El Chapo's drug empire made the man a billionaire. In 2011, he was ranked as the 10th richest man in Mexico and 1,140th in the world by Forbes. With a net worth of around $1 billion. A year later, Business Insider estimated Guzmán’s worth to have grown to around $1.3 billion.
Bruce M. Bagley was a professor at the University of Miami who taught about crime and drug trafficking. In 2017 (a year after El Chapo’s latest arrest), he told Forbes: ‘Expenses are running high, his lieutenants are increasingly greedy and disloyal. His children now control his wealth and split it among themselves. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that he is still a billionaire as of 2016. Guesstimate: $2-$4 billion at most.’
What did El Chapo spend his money on?
So we’ve seen how Joaquin Guzmán went about piling up just so much currency. And we’ve heard some educated guesses as to just how big that enormous pile of cash was. What, though, did the man spend all that money on?
El Chapo was, as we know, a drug kingpin. So you won’t be hugely shocked to discover that he didn’t invest his money in premium bonds or buy shares in ethically sound startups. Nor did he spend it on building up a collection of rare stamps. As a cartel boss, you have to lay out your illicit earnings on much flashier items. Blatant conspicuousness is the name of the game in the drug trade.
Through a mixture of police seizures and photographs posted on his sons’ social media accounts, the world has an idea of how El Chapo spent his money. Here’s an overview of some of the things Mexican authorities have seized and Instagram has hosted snaps of, all found in El Chapo’s main complex:
- Many luxury limited edition supercars
- Rare big cats
- Private planes
- Mobile phones plated in gold
- A gold AK-47
- A .45mm handgun encrusted in diamonds
And then there are some of the expensive ‘tools of the trade’, including:
- Assault rifles
- Grenade launchers
- Millions in bribes
- The wages of his staff (he had tens of thousands of people working for him)
- Bonuses to staff included a one-off purchase of 50 cars to hand out to his favourite underlings
Unsurprisingly, El Chapo has - or had - a very handsome property portfolio as well, with ranches in most Mexican states. He also owned a few beach houses, one of which - in Acapulco - was worth well over $10 million.
How did El Chapo squander so much of his earnings?
Now, depending on your views on trains, El Chapo’s miniature railway which weaved around his own private zoo (featuring lions, tigers, panthers, crocodiles and deer) is either a tremendous waste of money… or the single greatest purchase by anyone, ever.
One of the more amusing things that El Chapo spent his drug money on came during a trip to Switzerland. Short, squat and by no means a particularly good-looking man, it’s fairly surprising to learn that Guzmán is quite a vain man. Over in the home of the cuckoo clock, he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an advanced form of anti-ageing treatment. Something called ‘cellular youth treatment’.
El Chapo, like most criminals, also liked to gamble. As befitting a ludicrously wealthy drug baron, he doesn’t just put the odd accumulator on the football on a Saturday afternoon. Or buy a few cards on a Friday night down the bingo hall. He frequented high-end casinos and would go big. Reports suggest that he would squander truly eye-watering amounts in Macau casinos.
Again, we’re not talking about him dropping a few thousand bucks at the blackjack table. Mexican police claimed that Guzmán once lost $66 million in a single night.
El Chapo also had a superyacht, called ‘Chapito’, on which he would entertain his many girlfriends. At any one time, he would have - according to one of his closest men who turned on and testified against him - ‘four or five women, all of whom needed paying'.
He didn’t spend all of his money. Even if you’re the kind of person happy to shell out tens of millions on a private zoo and a little train track, it’s hard to spend the kind of money El Chapo used to make.
It’s believed that, when he was arrested, Joaquin Guzmán had upwards of $30m in cash just kicking about his house.
The smarter side to El Chapo’s finances
We’ve just seen how the Mexican drug boss frittered away his money and spent it on some incredibly garish items. There is, however, another side to him and his approach to the money he made. You don’t rise to the top of the cut-throat business of drug exportation by being daft. El Chapo knew the value of a dollar.
He invested jaw-dropping sums into sophisticated banking schemes and insurance companies which he would have close associates look after. He even had a huge array of debit cards holding cash, all connected to a finance firm in Colombia.
All this isn’t nearly as amusing as learning about how he used to splash the cash, but it is a fascinating insight into the man and the way he dealt with the incredible amount of cash that came his way.