Ciudad Juarez, MEXICO – In the late 1990s, Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzmán secretly tried from behind bars to cut a deal with the DEA to give up his rivals and get immunity in return.
Guzmán was jailed at the time but still in charge of the Sinaloa cartel. His attempt to make a deal with the US has remained largely unknown for more than 20 years.
According to New York-based journalist Noah Hurowitz, who covered Guzmán's trial in the US and detailed Guzmán's attempt to snitch in his new book, the kingpin offered information on the rival Arellano Felix and Beltran Leyva cartels and on his own partner, Hector "El Guero" Palma, in exchange for personal benefit.
In 1998, Guzmán was imprisoned in Puente Grande prison in southwestern Mexico when he sent a request through his brother-in-law to Joe Bond, a Mexican-American DEA agent stationed in Mexico City, asking to meet inside his prison cell.
"I learned about the meeting by court documents, and then I met with Joe Bond in Washington who showed me the internal report he wrote for the DEA after meeting 'El Chapo,'" Hurowitz told Insider.
After covering Guzmán's court hearings in Brooklyn in 2018 and 2019, Hurowitz traveled to La Tuna, Guzmán's hometown in Sinaloa state, to speak to people who knew him before he became a legendary cartel figure.
Hurowitz found that "El Chapo" wanted to offer Bond detailed information, such as operations and names and whereabouts of rivals, in return providing for safety for his family and for dropping the charges against him in the US.
"The Arellano Felix, El Chapo warned, were in the practice of sending double agents to work as informants for the DEA and collect intel through their interactions with the gringos," Hurowitz writes.
According to the book, the meeting – which included Jose Patiño, an official with the Mexican Attorney General's office who facilitated the DEA agents' entry into Puente Grande – lasted more than two hours.
Bond told Hurowitz that Guzmán was not expecting the meeting, as he and fellow agent Larry Villalobos had agreed to see him behind bars but didn't say when they would visit.
Using fake IDs, they posed as sociologists who wanted to speak to "El Chapo" privately. It wasn't until he entered the room that Bond revealed he was "Tito," the secret name he had agreed to use for the meeting.
Bond introduced Patiño with his real name and told "El Chapo" they could fully trust the Mexican official. Both agents told "El Chapo" they couldn't offer any guarantees or agree to his requests, but Guzmán kept talking.
"In 24 hours, he said, he could give the DEA and the [Attorney General's office] information on the whereabouts of drug storages, weapons caches, the group's entire infrastructure, and corrupt officials in Tepic," Hurowitz writes, referring to the capital of the state of Nayarit, which borders Sinaloa to the south.
Guzmán also snitched on his business partner, Hector "El Guero" Palma, who had ordered the killing of Guzmán's other brother-in-law.
Palma was extradited to Mexico in 2016 after serving nine years of a 16-year sentence in the US. He remains imprisoned in Mexico after a July decision by an appeals court that blocked a lower court's order to free him.
The DEA agents also asked "El Chapo" about politicians who could be working for his or other criminal organizations, according to Hurowitz's book, but Guzmán declined to share any more details, saying "it was too dangerous" to snitch on them.
Bond told Hurowitz that the DEA never agreed on the deal and that was the last time they met with him. Bond said US prosecutors asked him to stop meeting Guzmán since the kingpin could "harm future court cases against him."
All of the men who helped Bond to get in touch with "El Chapo" and get inside the prison to meet him are now dead, including Patiño. Most of them were murdered in the years that followed.
Patiño died under suspicious circumstances. His body and those of three other Mexican officials working with the DEA were found in a car that appeared to have swerved into a ditch, but later examinations found their heads had been crushed and they had lacerations all over their bodies and internal organs.
"Bond still wonders if his friend's gruesome death came as a result of the meeting at Puente Grande," Hurowitz wrote. "That's the price so many honest cops paid in Mexico, before and since."
In 2001, Guzmán made the first of several prison escapes. While on the run, he made his offer to the DEA again, but it went without reply.
Hurowitz said this little-known story of attempted betrayal reflects a shameful fact of life within criminal organizations, where capos and henchmen are frequently portrayed as unfailingly loyal.
"We have this understanding that Mexican cartels don't snitch, and it is true to some levels. But at the level that El Chapo was [on] back then, he was able to do it," Hurowitz told Insider.
Hurowitz said Guzmán's attempt to cut a deal also offers a window into how authorities pull off major busts or bring down high-profile targets.
"In Mexico, there was a long tradition of traffickers working with US law enforcers to get rid of other enemies, more often than the cops want to admit," he said.