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‘El Chapo’ arrives at Supermax
Photo courtesy: US Dept of Prisons

By Ernest Gurulé

In the same week that the U.S. government announced it was relocating the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management to Grand Junction, it was also announcing the relocation of a one-man, $12 billion industry to Florence, Colorado, as well. That one man is ‘El Chapo’, the man who once pulled the levers on one of the biggest drug cartels in the world.

Around 5:30 a.m. on July 19th, the Bureau of Prisons escorted Joaquin Guzmán Loera to his new quarters, the United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility, better known as Supermax, the most secure prison in the country. Theoretically, the 62-year-old former cartel kingpin, will live there---in the same 70-square foot cell---until the day he dies. Of course, Guzman has a history of escapes from prison. But Supermax also has a history of never having had an escape.

For Florence City Manager, Mike Patterson, Guzman’s arrival may generate a little more conversation than usual, but as far as the town’s security, he’s not too concerned. “We have the safest prison in the world,” said Patterson, in a recent phone conversation as he vacationed in Maine. “I try to explain that to people,” he said. “When you live in a place where you have a lot of prisons, it’s pretty safe.”

Indeed, the driving economic force in Florence, and all of Fremont County, about 110 miles southwest of Denver, is the prison industry. The county has 11 prisons in all, but the four in Florence are all federal. Supermax, often referred to as ‘the Alcatraz of the Rockies,’ is easily the most notorious.

Supermax, which opened 25 years ago, houses a ‘Who’s Who,’ of infamous names. Among its inmates are Ted Kaczynski, ‘The Unabomber,’ Zacarias Moussaoui, a 9/11 co-conspirator, Richard Reid, ‘The Shoebomber,’ Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, The Boston Marathon Bomber, and approximately 400 others including white supremacists, traitors, terrorists and, like Guzman, other cartel kingpins. Each is locked up at least 23 hours a day, though a number are in solitary confinement for extended periods of time that could stretch into months or longer.

Florence, Patterson conceded, does have a certain image outside of the county and across the country. But if Supermax is ‘the Alcatraz of the Rockies,’ Florence may be ‘the Mayberry of the Rockies,’ a safe, friendly town in one of the most beautiful locations in Colorado.

The notorious federal prison, Patterson stressed, is also a solid, dependable economic pillar for the town and the region. “The reality is that it really is a wonderful economic engine that provides great jobs.” A number of prison employees also live in the county and send their children to local schools. They even have a nickname for these students, ‘prison kids.’ Others commute from Pueblo to the east and Salida and Buena Vista to the west. The money they spend for everything from housing to food, stays in the county.

Though Supermax, in and of itself, does not pay into the Florence general fund with taxes, the taxes workers who spend on everyday goods and services stays in Florence and Fremont County. But the town does count on Supermax paying for the water it uses, several hundred thousand dollars each year. When the government was shut down early in 2019, the town, which counts on getting a check for the water each quarter, had to be patient. It finally got the money after more than a month.

The final chapter of Guzman’s notorious life of crime began in 2016 when he was nabbed by Mexican authorities after a shoot-out in Los Mochis, Mexico. He was soon extradited to the U.S. where he was tried and convicted in New York in November 2018. The trial was itself a spectacle. The courtroom was usually packed with international reporters along with off-the-street ‘narco-tourists,’ many of whom would wait hours just for the chance to watch the proceedings.

Guzman’s life could not have been more dramatically bookended. As a young boy, he often went to bed hungry. But as he got involved in drugs and ultimately became the head of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel he acquired an almost surreal power. Along with the power grew a prestige and ruthlessness. It’s alleged that some of his victims were executed with a flamethrower. At its height, the cartel was shipping cocaine by the ton. And it was shipped by land, air and even submarine. At the height of the cartel, Guzman was awash in U.S. dollars; so much it had to be warehoused.

In the end, El Chapo, Mexican slang for ‘Shorty,’ the man who once called the shots on who lived and who died, spoke quietly in the New York courtroom where his fate was sealed. “Since the government of the United States is going to send me to a prison where my name will never be heard again,” he said, “I take advantage of this opportunity to say there was no justice here.” His attorneys say they will appeal.

Guzman, who in his cartel prime days, once had a $5 million bounty on his head, was also ordered by the U.S. government to pay a $12 billion dollar fine.

Meanwhile, Patterson said Florence, no doubt, will get more than a few visitors who will make the pilgrimage to his town just to see where El Chapo will live out his life. For the curious, Supermax will be easy to spot. It sits about two miles out of town and atop one of the many hills that dot the region. It’ll be visible but not accessible.

Still, said the affable Florence Chief Executive, they are perfectly welcome to drop in anytime. The town, in case they might wonder, has one of the top cop-to-resident ratios in the state, as well as reserves. “The Bureau of Prisons will brief (local) law enforcement directly and the police chief will tell me anything relevant. I entrust him with security.”





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