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Criminals like El Chapo embody the 'underground equivalent' of successful execs: author

·2 min read

Many people see drug kingpins solely as career criminals.

But they’re also businesspeople, says best-selling author Patrick Radden Keefe. In a recent interview with Yahoo Finance’s editor-in-chief, Andy Serwer, the New Yorker staff writer explained that while such lawbreakers often commit horrific crimes, they often use the same skills as business executives to manage their empires.

“A lot of these people are sort of the underworld equivalent of successful businesspeople. They are people who approach what they do as a business,” Keefe told Yahoo Finance.

Keefe recently released a new book called "Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks," which includes several stories about criminals who managed profitable organizations. For instance, Keefe tells the story of Willem Holleeder, a Dutch gangster who ran an extortion ring and Monzer al-Kassar — also known as “the Prince of Marbella” — an international arms dealer connected to the Iran Contra Scandal.

The book also features a portrait of El Chapo, the incarcerated former leader of the international Sinaloa Cartel. Keefe says El Chapo exemplifies the businessman-criminal duality.

Mexico's top drug lord Joaquin
Mexico's top drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted as he arrives at Long Island MacArthur airport in New York, U.S., January 19, 2017, after his extradition from Mexico. Picture taken Janaury 19, 2017. U.S. officials/Handout via REUTERS

“You have people like El Chapo Guzman, who I think we normally think of as just a murderous criminal. And he certainly was those things,” Keefe told Yahoo Finance. “But I was interested in him as a businessman, as a guy who was effectively the CEO of a multi-billion dollar transnational commodities enterprise, and managed to run this big, clandestine, illegal global smuggling business for decades, until he was caught.”

Before being apprehended in 2016, El Chapo ran the Sinaloa Cartel, an international enterprise that trafficks in substances like cocaine and heroin. The year before he was arrested, the Sinaloa Cartel was the biggest supplier of drugs to the United States, according to the DEA.

Keefe first wrote about the Sinaloa Cartel in a New York Times Magazine cover story in 2012. He said he initially pitched the publication by saying that he wanted to “write a Harvard Business School case study of a Mexican drug cartel.” Keefe says the story "set him on the path" of assessing criminal gangs as businesses.

“We think of them primarily as a criminal gang, they think of themselves as this big commodities business. How do they invest their proceeds? How do they move them?” Keefe said, “What do you do when you can't resort to the courts in order to resolve disputes with business rivals or partners? And all of those questions have always been really intriguing to me.”

Dylan Croll is a reporter and researcher at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @CrollonPatrol.

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