BUENOS AIRES — He is 56 years old and stands at just 5-foot-6, with a fortune estimated at $1.5 billion. He’s a family man of sorts — having married three times and sired nine children — who, like most Mexican Catholics, is devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

His name is Joaquin "Shorty” Guzmán, though he's known more commonly as El Chapo, and he is a legendary global drug trafficker. This son of a poor peasant father who beat him regularly, El Chapo is, according to Mexican and U.S. authorities, responsible for 1,500 deaths. He is also one of five Latin Americans on Forbes magazine’s exclusive list of the World’s Most Powerful People.

The Latin American best positioned on that list is Pope Francis, the only Argentine there, who is No. 4, after Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, the current leader of China. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is No. 20, while three Mexicans complete Latin America’s presence: multimillionaire Carlos Slim and his family (No. 12), President Enrique Peña Nieto (No. 37), and finally, Guzmán (No. 67). 

Guzmán has the honor of featuring among the world’s top leaders, financiers and captains of industry by virtue of leading the Sinaloa Cartel — a decidedly non-philanthropic organization Forbes says imports 25% of all the drugs entering the United States. That has made him, since the death of Osama bin Laden, the man most wanted by U.S. security agencies, which are offering a $7 million reward for his capture.

The cartel’s sophisticated work consists of moving drugs from production centers in South America to the United States, after crossing Central America and the 17 Mexican states in which it operates. Not that it is all a bed of roses for Guzmán and his associates: He has allied organizations but also powerful competitors and enemies such as the Zetas Cartel. Differences between them are resolved not with verbal courtesies, but with machine guns and beheadings, among a range of other imaginative and less-than-delicate methods.

In the crossfire

Some youthful residents of the impoverished Villa La Cárcova sector of José León Suárez, north of Buenos Aires, recently burned and smashed part of the local police station. They broke all the windows, ripped out doors and painted slogans on the walls that could hardly be described as praising the police and their work. They also set fire to a police vehicle, 10 private cars and 90 motorbikes being stored in a shed. The forces of law and order, meanwhile, remained holed up in the building, waiting for the arrival of Buenos Aires provincial police, who finally dispersed the protesters.

It was the murder of a 13-year-old boy that incited this anger. Police said he had been caught in the middle of a fight between drug gangs, but his father said a drug dealer had fired shots in a place “full of traffickers” amid police who did nothing. The rioters chanted, “The traffickers are all with the police.”

After this explosion of public rage, reports emerged that three other boys had died this year in the drug war, all near Villa La Cárcova, and there were suspicions that traffickers had even set up a settlement right next door, called Ciudad de Dios.

Of course, none of this is exceptional in a country where traffickers once riddled a governor’s house with bullets, an incident in which senior policemen were detained on suspicion of conniving with the criminals.

As revealed in a recent UN Office on Drugs and Crime report, Argentina is Latin America’s top cocaine consumer, and No. 2 globally, behind the United States. In fact, the Sinaloa Cartel has been able to expand its operations to new zones such as Central and South America — as far as Peru, Paraguay and Argentina. 

Argentina lacks a comprehensive national plan to fight drugs, either in a preventive or punitive capacity. And the state anti-drug agency SEDRONAR has been without a head since March. This notable inaction represents not only the Argentine government’s prolonged negligence but also collusion with El Chapo, his friends and competitors.