El Jefe himself actually doesn’t appear much in Feuer’s police procedural, except for what we see of him through the electronic eyes and ears of his pursuers, and what we see is already known: The monster is an affectless personality, a vain and paranoid narcissist, stunningly ignorant and yet, paradoxically, also a loving family man, devoted to his children, wives and mistresses. His pursuers in the F.B.I., C.I.A., D.E.A., H.S.I. and other agencies monitor his intimate (and unimaginative) conversations with his underlings and girlfriends, and they understand that all that their electronic gizmos are showing is a reflection of a reflection in a hall of mirrors, but it’s the chase that counts. (For a chilling fictionalized portrait of Guzmán’s world, see the 2011 Mexican film “Miss Bala.”)
Two F.B.I. agents make contact with Guzmán’s genius 21-year-old Colombian communications encrypter and turn him. Over at the D.E.A., Ray Donovan, an agent in special ops, understands that obsessive nerds throughout United States law-enforcement agencies are gathering bits and pieces of surveillance information about Guzmán, and brings the men (they’re all men) together into a fractious coalition. Guzmán dreams of being the subject of a Hollywood movie and also of becoming intimate with the Mexican soap opera star Kate del Castillo. Little does he know that his messages with her have been monitored from the start, and it’s a painful moment when the coalition agents decide that, with the actor Sean Penn tagging along on del Castillo’s trip to Sinaloa to meet her admirer, thus creating a security risk, they have to pass up an otherwise perfect opportunity to bring in the giant whale.
Feuer tells a brisk, compact tale, but he could have used a few pages more to take us to the other side of the wall of mirrors. He could have told, for example, how in the late 1970s, under intense pressure from the United States, the Mexican Army launched Operación Cóndor in the thickly forested Sinaloa mountains, where many of today’s most important traffickers were born. The brutality was overwhelming to impoverished peasants who had found a way out of raw hunger and into peaceful poverty by cultivating marijuana and poppy. Cóndor was a full American-style operation, complete with herbicide-spraying planes, armed helicopters and heavily armored soldiers who marched into the villages brutalizing the local men, dragging them onto trucks, terrorizing the women. The Sinaloa historian Froylán Enciso found legal records of a typical incident from an earlier operation, in 1974, in which women from a settlement just uphill from La Tuna, the village where Guzmán was born, were stripped naked and assaulted by Mexican troops, their money stolen.