Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman arrest photo 2/2014

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, in handcuffs, is escorted to a helicopter by Mexican navy marines in Mexico City, Mexico, after his arrest last month.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in July 2015. Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman was sentenced July 17, 2019 to life in U.S. prison.


The notorious Mexican drug lord who just escaped from prison had dealings in Lancaster County, working out of the quiet suburbs and a small airport here, when he was at the pinnacle of his drug-dealing career.

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman escaped from a maximum-security Mexican prison Saturday, via a 1-mile tunnel that ran from a hole poked into the shower area of his cell. An international manhunt has been launched for Guzman, described as the "world's most wanted drug lord."

Guzman's Mexican drug cartel had a cocaine distribution hub that formerly operated in Lancaster County, until the arrest of its county-based drug runners in 2007.

The runners flew drugs into the Smoketown Airport, lived in homes in Manheim Township and operated a local carpet cleaning business as a front, as they ran drugs up and down the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

When the runners were arrested, authorities found $1.8 million in cash and $160,000 in drugs in their Manheim Township homes, as well as $2 million worth of drugs in a car stopped on the turnpike, just north of Lancaster County.

The runners' exploits were detailed in a Los Angeles Times story, which described one of the drug pilots, John Ward, of Carlsbad, Calif., who made frequent flights in and out of the Smoketown Airport in the mid-2000s.

Ward made at least 19 trips to Smoketown and airports in York and Carlisle, federal officials said in 2009 when the local defendants were sentenced.

Each time, Ward transported 40 to 100 kilos of cocaine, worth about $900,000 to $2.3 million at that time, the authorities said.

Mel Glick, the manager of Smoketown Airport, said at that time that he remembered seeing the drug-running plane coming into the airport only one time and vaguely recalled Ward.

Pilots are not required to register at the airport.

While here, Ward stayed at an small hotel near the Smoketown Airport, he told the Times. After midnight, he would put on black clothing and carry cocaine-filled gym bags from the plane to his room. He paid cash and avoided people, saying, if asked, he was an aircraft broker, the Times reported.

During his trips, he was met by Noe Coronado, an East Coast distributor for the cartel.

Ward told the Times that he thought Coronado, who wore a pompadour and shiny rayon pants, was too flashy for conservative Lancaster County, advising him to tone down his appearance and to drive carefully on his trips around the county.

Coronado listened, Ward told the newspaper, and eventually operated a carpet cleaning business in Lancaster County as a front for his drug running.

But police eventually caught up with Coronado who, along with two other families associated with the cartel, settled into homes in Manheim Township.

The families came here because Lancaster County had the small airport in Smoketown, off Route 340, where a pilot ferrying cocaine could come and go without notice, federal authorities said in 2009.

The county also was close to the cartel's network of dealers in New Jersey and New York. And workers could quietly move into the suburbs, as they did, and ship drugs to the cartel.

By early 2007, the families were moving large amounts of drugs from their local base, and stashing huge amounts of cash in their houses.

One of the homes was on Sterling Place in the Bloomingdale development, between the Lititz and Oregon pikes. The other two were on Cobblestone Lane and Pebblebrook Drive in Village Park, a development off Petersburg Road in Neffsville.

When the feds descended in 2007, they found more than $1.8 million in cash in the Bloomingdale home alone.

The cash, in various denominations, was stuffed in a safe and in duffel bags, one on the floor of a closet that had its doors flung open.

In one of the Neffsville homes, investigators found seven kilos of cocaine, worth about $160,000.

Neighbors of the homes said at the time that they noticed people frequently coming and going, but never suspected drug activity.

Authorities said they arrested Coronado and another dealer after the men transferred 97 kilos of cocaine — worth more than $2 million — to other dealers. The cocaine was seized from the trunk of a car after it was stopped on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, just north of Lancaster County.

Coronado was sentenced to eight years and one month in federal prison, and was released in January of 2014, just before Guzman was arrested. The other county-based dealer, Mariano Renteria-Ibarra was sentenced to four years and nine months, and was released in 2011.