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Chasing El Chapo

The man charged with catching an escaped Mexican drug lord—again—is a Notre Dame diehard who approaches criminal investigations as the hoops coach he is

IF JACK RILEY were not pursuing the world's most notorious drug lord, he'd be coaching in a youth basketball league, repairing psyches and developing skills of players cut from high school teams. For much of the past 25 years Riley has been trying to turn young ballers into the player he never became: a 6-foot guard whose walk-on attempt at Bradley University four decades ago ended with an unappealing offer from the coach: Do you want to be a team manager? He didn't.

While recent events have temporarily derailed Riley's basketball pursuits, he is still coaching. As second in command of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Riley, 57, has assembled an international team of agents and operatives, chasing Joaquín (El Chapo) Guzmán, leader of the Western Hemisphere's largest drug-trafficking organization, the Sinaloa cartel.

Guzmán's sensational escape from a maximum-security prison in Mexico on July 11 made him the No. 1 fugitive in the Americas and was cause for Riley to recall the core principle he used to help capture El Chapo in 2014: teamwork.

While running the DEA's Field Division in Chicago, Riley recognized that rival law enforcement agencies sometimes stumbled over each other in pursuit of the same target. To unify operations, Riley formed a single strike force. Under the DEA umbrella, agents from more than a dozen organizations began to share intelligence and collaborate on strategy. Among them: the FBI, the Secret Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the IRS criminal investigation division, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Chicago police. "I call it the end-of-the-season all-star team," Riley says.

The all-stars took their lead from Riley, who grew up in Chicago and is a lifelong Notre Dame fan. He listened to voices and views, considered options, then called "plays," as Riley puts it, for his team. Since the strike force launched four years ago, agents have made dozens of arrests. High-ranking associates of Guzmán have pleaded guilty in court.

One foundation of Riley's team is intelligence gathering. A wiretap once revealed that Guzmán, known for orchestrating mutilations and beheadings, had placed a bounty on Riley's head. Strike-force intelligence also played a role in Mexico's apprehension of Guzmán last year. Though Riley didn't make the capture himself, he still experienced a certain satisfaction. "I'm the starting quarterback for the Fighting Irish," he told the Chicago Reader, "we're playing in the National Championship game, and I just threw a touchdown in the fourth quarter and we won."

Riley's crusade against El Chapo affects young athletes across the U.S. As SI reported in June, sports injuries are leading to an addiction to opioid-based painkillers. Once painkiller prescriptions expire, many athletes turn to a cheaper, more powerful alternative—heroin, at just $5 a bag. Much of that heroin comes through El Chapo's cartel, which targets prescription-drug addicts. "In the athletic arena," Riley told SI, "if anything can be likened to a weapon of mass destruction, it's heroin."

Riley understands the connection between sports injuries and drug abuse better than most. One player he coached in a Catholic youth league got hurt and became addicted to painkillers. A second player suffered a neck injury and years later overdosed on heroin. Memories of heartbreak, tears and funerals fuel Riley's obsession with El Chapo. "The hunt is back on," he says.

A determined optimist, Riley speaks of when, not if, Guzmán will be recaptured. From his 12th-floor office in Washington, D.C., Riley has a view of the city, the Pentagon and his life after El Chapo. When the DEA's most wanted man in the world is killed or captured, Riley says he will retire to a life of gyms and bouncing balls. "What I really like doing," Riley says, "is taking a kid who got cut [in middle school] and helping him make his high school team."

That takes training, confidence-building, countless hours of personal coaching. Riley knows every detail by heart. He created the template at the DEA.


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