A former drug kingpin explains 'El Chapo's' lifestyle: 'They become heroes of their community'
Drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman (AFP Photo/Alfredo Estrella)

This article was originally published by The Influence, a news site that covers the full spectrum of human relationships with drugs. Follow The Influence on Facebook or Twitter.

“Freeway” Rick Ross is name full of resonance, belonging to a man who is notorious for flooding Los Angeles with cheap cocaine during the 1980s.

From being a promising tennis prospect; to running a massive drug empire shifting up to $3 million of merchandise per day to clients including the Bloods and Crips street gangs; to getting unwittingly mixed up in the Contras scandal though his main source, Nicaraguan drug-lord Oscar Danilo Blandón; to serving 13 years of sentence in the feds and winning his freedom through the courts; to reinventing himself as a grassroots activist and self-proclaimed “Mayor of the Ghetto”—Freeway Rick has lived a life worthy of filling at least one book. (And it has: The now-56-year-old street legend penned Freeway Rick Ross: The Untold Autobiography in 2014.)

Since his release from prison in 2009, and despite more recent scrapes, Freeway Rick traverses the country attending events, promoting his book, clothing line and documentary, and talking to kids about the dangers of drug use—and, critically, the dangers of the lifestyle.

A lot of hustlers—and I am one, or was; I served 21 years of a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for dealing weed and LSD—get caught up in being all that a drug dealer can be. The buzz, the power, the money, the popularity, the women—these things can become as much of an addiction as sticking a needle in your arm. When you do business as a top-echelon drug dealer, you live like a rock star.

How do you resist that? And how do you replace it, once you’ve had it?

Freeway Rick’s résumé also includes suing rapper Rick Ross for using his name and likeness, and being portrayed by Michael Kenneth Williams in the Hollywood Movie Kill a Messenger. But for all his fame and infamy, Freeway Rick feels that the most important journey in life has been his recovery.

It’s been a gradual process, but he feels like he has finally gotten to a place where he’s not only comfortable with who he is, but not adverse to talking about it. He caught up with The Influence to do just that.

Seth Ferranti: Why did you start selling drugs in the first place, other than the fact that your high school upholstery teacher was willing to help you?

Freeway Rick Ross: The reason I started to sell drugs was because I’d put myself in a position educationally where my options were very limited. Without a formal education, it’s almost impossible here in America to get a job. I couldn’t read.

I couldn’t write, so I couldn’t fill out the application, even though I was willing to do almost any kind of work. I’d made up my mind that whatever job I went into, I was going to do it the same way I played tennis.

Everyone has heard of your tennis career. What exactly happened?

Pretty much I had dedicated myself to tennis until I found myself at the end of my rope, in a position where I could go no further without an education. There was no way that I’d be going to a college [on a tennis scholarship], because basically, I was a functional illiterate. My tennis career was over before it started.

You’ve said you have an addictive personality; how did that transfer to the drug game?

I definitely have an addictive personality. Whatever I get into, I throw myself into it. I go into it wholehearted, no-holds-barred. I don’t want to leave no rock unturned. And that’s basically the way I went into the drug business.

What you find yourself doing is chasing that same high that the drug users are chasing—trying to get that hit again, you know? Trying to get that fix, trying to go to that next level, which is almost impossible to get. Dealers find themselves in that same position. You want to be the man, you want to be the guy that your family comes to when they need help, that your loved ones can count on.

I believe it’s even more addictive than for the users, because at least the users, they have somebody that tells them: You shouldn’t be using. With dealers, nobody ever tells the dealers that they shouldn’t be dealing. Most people encourage it. Even if they don’t encourage it consciously, they do it unconsciously by always asking you for money, asking you for help.

The way that society looks up to drug dealers is encouragement to continue to sell drugs.

What’s it like being a kingpin at the center of the action?

Well, you find yourself in this position that’s enormous. You really don’t know how you got there, unless you really are a thinker. Once you’re there, you have to keep feeding this monster every single day.

You know that the day you stop selling drugs is the day you lose that power—and you never want to lose that. What winds up happening is you have to keep feeding that monster and you find yourself in that position and it’s a position that you almost love, and people love to see you in that position.

Like my man who just got arrested, El Chapo—he had the biggest female actress in Mexico texting him, and that’s pretty much the way it is with our drug dealers. They become celebrities. They become heroes of their community.

That obviously influenced your decision to get involved in the cocaine trade.

My first role model—not my first role model, but after I was 19, you know—he became a drug dealer. For so many young, black males in America, their heroes are drug dealers, because those are the first people we come in contact with that is having some money.

Most of the people in the black community don’t have any money. There’s very few black businesses in America, so your first hero is somebody who you see, who looks like you, who acts like you, who lives in your neighborhood, who’s living that life that you’d like to live. And in most cases it’s a drug dealer.

How did you eventually overcome your urge to keep dealing?

Well, basically all I did was change my attitude. My habits, my drive, my determination and how I save money is all the same. The part that was wrong was that I had put cocaine in the mix. So I had to figure out that cocaine was something that I could no longer go back to. I had to be as far away from cocaine as I could get. Once I took that out of my mix and used the same strategies that I used to sell cocaine, it just made everything else flourish. Well, not as big as cocaine! But I can see the promising things starting to take place.

My book, my t-shirts, my record label, my documentaries, all the things that I touch. I know that if I put that same energy and the same determination into them, they’ll all flourish.

Did you learn anything in prison that you can take forward in your life?

What I found out during my incarceration is that experience is 1,000 times [more costly than] its worth. That is what I try to impress on kids: You don’t have to get that experience on your own. What you can do is, you can get that experience from somebody else like me and take a shortcut.

I try to go around and share my experience with as many people as I can. That’s why I wrote my book, that’s why my documentary is out. I’m also working on a motion picture right now, as well as a TV series. Then people can study me and learn and not only from my mistakes, but from the things that I did right. What I try to do is take the things that I did right and use them to the fullest.

And drugs are not a part of the equation for you now, right?

Well, nobody wins in the drug game. The user’s life will be destroyed. The sellers either go to prison or get killed. There’s no winners.

If you take that same determination that you’re using—to not only use drugs, but to sell drugs as well—and apply it to other avenues, the results will be overwhelming.

Seth Ferranti was released in 2014 after serving 25 years for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. He blogs at gorillaconvict.com and his latest book, Gorilla Convict, is a compilation of his writings about prison gangs, the mafia, hip-hop and hustling. You can follow him on Twitter: @SethFerranti.

This article was originally published by The Influence, a news site that covers the full spectrum of human relationships with drugs. Follow The Influence on Facebook or Twitter.