Some convicted drug dealers doubted that the apprehension of cartel leader Joaquin El Chapo Guzmán was real.
  • Eduardo Verdugo/AP
  • Some convicted drug dealers doubted that the apprehension of cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán was real.

Word travels fast in prison. A couple of weekends ago Derek Thomas was watching a basketball game on one of the TVs in a common area inside McDowell Federal Correctional Institution in West Virginia, glad to be out of his cell. Authorities had been putting the prison on lockdown even more often than usual to try to quell conflicts among inmate factions.

But Thomas, a 30-year-old from Chicago’s west side, was pulled away from the game by a breaking news report on another TV nearby. “I saw it flashing that they caught Guzmán,” he recalls.

Acting on intelligence from U.S. officials, Mexican authorities had captured Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, the source of most of the hard drugs moving into Chicago, and one of the most wanted figures in the world. They announced that they’d nabbed him without a fight at a condo in a Pacific resort town.

Others gathered around the TV to watch with Thomas, and the news buzzed through the prison. Scores of men locked up on drug offenses began wondering what exactly had happened and how it might affect their own cases.

“At first people were like, ‘It’s not even real—it was too easy,'” Thomas says. “They’ve got so many of us in here and most were not major players in the drug game. When you’ve got somebody that high up, he’s like a myth.”

About half of the 215,000 federal inmates across the country are in on drug offenses, and Thomas believes the portion is even higher among the 1,600 at McDowell. Thomas himself is serving a 13-and-a-half-year sentence for participating in a conspiracy to distribute heroin that originally came from Mexico. Authorities describe the suppliers as Sinaloa “subcontractors.”

“There’s a couple guys down here where Chapo and his cartel were mentioned in their cases,” says Thomas. “There was a slight mention of it in my case.”

When they heard the news, “everybody had their speculations: ‘If it was really him, it would have been a blaze of glory.’ A lot of the Mexicans around here don’t believe it was him. And then they’re like, ‘Even if it was, [the cartel] just gave him up and they have somebody else to take his place already.’ There’s just so much money in it, everybody’s replaceable.

“My thing is, when a person has so much money and so much power for so long, they begin to get a feeling of invincibility. He probably didn’t think he could be touched.”

Over the next couple of weeks, Thomas and other inmates began to worry that Chapo’s arrest would slow the movement to reform federal drug policies. Most of the drug offenders at McDowell were convicted of dealing crack, Thomas says, and they’re well aware that Congress and the Obama administration have taken steps to ease sentencing guidelines. Thomas is also hopeful that mandatory minimum sentences for heroin will be reduced.

But with the cartels’ violence in the spotlight, will politicians continue pushing for shorter sentences for lower-level offenders, even if they weren’t linked to violence? Or, on the other hand, will everyone take a deep breath now that the bogeyman of drug trafficking is behind bars?

“You don’t get your hopes up for too long because you just don’t know,” Thomas says.

Inmates at McDowell agree on at least one thing: Chapo’s capture “does very little if anything at all to the flow of the drugs,” Thomas says. “The whole time he was on the run, somebody else was actually running the operation. Whoever that person is is probably afraid now because there’s somebody waiting behind him.”

By the time heroin or cocaine reaches the streets of Chicago and other cities, so many players have been involved that dealers aren’t even sure where it came from. “You may be able to go to your source and your source’s source, but after that it pretty much dries up. There are times when everybody’s got an identical quality on the street and everybody knows it was probably coming from the same place, but nobody really knows where.

“It’s a well-oiled machine that’s just not going to stop.”