Even from jail, ‘El Chapo’ looms large in Mexican home state
CULIACAN: He has lost weight in his New York jail cell, and some of his larger-thanlife aura, but Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman still looms large over Mexico’s Sinaloa, where he launched his narcotics empire. With his head and trademark mustache shaved, held in solitary confinement 23 hours a day when he is not in court, Guzman is a far cry from the brazen billionaire capo whose Sinaloa cartel brought this lawless western state to world fame.
But even as he goes on trial Tuesday in US federal court, charged with smuggling 155 tons of cocaine into the United States, “El Chapo” remains a constant presence on the streets of Sinaloa’s capital, Culiacan, where he was feared and beloved in equal measure during his days as the world’s most-wanted drug lord. Street vendors still sell figurines of a gun-toting Guzman, and hats stamped with the number 701 - the spot he once held on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s richest people, with an estimated fortune of $1 billion.
There is an avid fan base here for the
different movies and television series inspired by his life, surely one of the most colorful to come from this region known for its outlaws. Guzman, 61 - whose nickname means “Shorty” - grew up dirt-poor in the town of Badiraguato, where he sold fruit on the street as a boy and started growing marijuana and opium poppies at age 15. Recruited into the powerful Guadalajara cartel, he then struck out on his own, eventually turning his homegrown cartel into a multi-billion-dollar empire with ruthless efficiency.
Later came his two audacious jailbreaks - once in a laundry cart, in 2001, and once through a tunnel outfitted with a motorcycle on rails, in 2015. Less legendary though still laced with a hint of Hollywood glamor - was the humiliation of being recaptured, six months later, after the Mexican authorities picked up his trail when he gave an interview to the actor Sean Penn that was published in Rolling Stone magazine. “El Chapo was a media star. He had a theatrical streak, and that put the spotlight on him even more,” says Tomas Guevara, a sociologist at the University of Sinaloa.
‘Narco culture’ Guzman may be behind bars, but the Sinaloa cartel remains a massive business, now led by his right-hand man, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. “The capture and extradition of ‘Chapo’ Guzman was largely symbolic,” says Mike Vigil, former head of international operations and the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Sinaloa is home to some of Mexico’s most famous drug barons, including the men who dominated the game in the 1980s, Ernesto Fonseca and Rafael Caro Quintero.
That has given rise to a local “narco culture,” visible in the ballads that local musicians dedicate to drug traffickers and the fashion sense sometimes found on the streets of Culiacan, a unique blend of Country Western and bling. It is also visible in the Jardines de Humaya cemetery, where late kingpins repose in luxurious tombs outfitted with bullet-proof glass, soaring domes and air-conditioning. Nearby, there is a chapel dedicated to Jesus Malverde, the so-called “narco saint” - a folk hero who, according to legend, stole from the rich to give to the poor in early 20th-century Sinaloa. —AFP
CULIACAN: Photo shows the Jardines del Humaya cemetery in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, Mexico. In spite of being in New York, where he awaits trial, Mexican drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman is still present in the Mexican northwestern state of Sinaloa, where he was born. —AFP