Eleven weeks after slipping through a mile-long, air-conditioned tunnel to freedom from a maximum-security prison, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán remains free despite an intense manhunt and a multimillion-dollar bounty.
And that may have something to do with Guzmán’s popularity with people in Mexico, particularly residents in his home state of Sinaloa.
In the weeks after his jailbreak, some appeared to welcome his possible return to his hometown.
“He is not a person who threatens, intimidates,” Francisco Villa Gurrola, a pastor in Guzmán’s home municipality of Badiraguato, told Vice News.
“He knows how to converse, knows how to speak. As an individual, I recognise him as a good person.”
While public displays have been limited, some have demonstrated their support.
“We are happy because the boss of Culiacan, of all Sinaloa, got out. We are cheerful,” Jose Antonio Medina told Vice at a sparsely attended rally held in Sinaloa’s capital, Culiacan, a few days after the escape.
Guzmán is “a normal guy, very good with people,” said Maria, a store owner in the drug kingpin’s home municipality.
“When somebody needs something, he helps them.”
Guzmán was born in the Sierra Madre highlands of Sinaloa, the historical center of much of Mexico’s drug cultivation.
From there, he ascended the ranks of the Sinaloa cartel.
In his hometown of La Tuna, his 86-year-old mother still lives in a home he had built.
Sinaloa’s Robin Hood
The popular support that has sprung up around Guzmán is nothing new. Other drug lords, like Pablo Escobar, have used their immense wealth and power to perform charity work in local, often impoverished communities.
The result, as described by Ioan Grillo in his book “El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency
,” is a kind of “narcocultura,” or narco culture.
“At the heart of narcocultura is the figure of the mafia godfather,” Grillo wrote. “The personage is celebrated in mythological terms as the ragged peasant who rose to riches; the great outlaw who defies the Mexcian army and the DEA; the benefactor who hands out dollar bills to hungry mothers; the scarlet pimpernel who disappears in a puff of smoke.”
Locals have reported that before his arrest in February 2014, Guzmán provided work to farmers, sent food to the elderly, and gave toys to children on holidays. Some hope that his reemergence from prison, despite its fraught circumstances, will again allow him to give back to the community.
“He has given money, brought jobs. He helps more than the presidents,” one 22-year-old from the area told El Nuevo Herald.
His apprehension in February 2014 came after 13 years on the run. After that arrest, his supporters turned out in force.
Some people expressed similar feelings after Guzmán’s most recent escape. In replies to a tweet purportedly showing the cartel boss in Costa Rica with his son, twitter users wrote “These men give more to Mexico than our rotten government,” and, “Be safe, my hero.”
According to The Washington Post, peasants in the area still back the fugitive drug lord, recounting how he gave them jobs on his ranches, and how his associates would air-drop bundles of cash into remote towns.
“He has been a necessary evil,” believes Enrique Amarillas, a local official who added that the Mexican government had not created “the conditions to combat poverty” in the region.
Official statistics indicate that Guzmán’s home municipality of Badiraguanto, with its 32,600 inhabitants, is the second-most impoverished of Sinaloa’s 18 municipalities.
“To judge if he’s done something bad or not, that’s God’s job,” said Esmirle Almeda Ortiz, a medical official in Badiraguanto.
‘I do not belong to Sinaloa, Sinaloa belongs to me’
Proof of the reverence the people of Mexico have for figures like Guzmán extends beyond banners and marches.
In recent years, as violence and cash have vaulted drug lords to the height of notoriety, “narcocorridos,” songs commemorating cartel members and their deeds, have become a well-known genre in Mexico.
In David Orozco’s “The ballad of the flight of El Chapo Guzmán,” the Sinaloa cartel chief’s legacy and influence are stated in defiant terms.
“I am El Chapo Guzmán. I wasn’t born to be behind bars, and I’ve already proved that, I hope that remains clear. I do not belong to Sinaloa. Sinaloa belongs to me. I am El Chapo Guzmán.”
Narcocorridos that celebrate the rise and mourn the fall of drug traffickers are especially popular in centres of the drug trade, like Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa state.
“On the streets of Culiacán, market stalls sell hundreds of CDs whose covers show artists with Kalashnikovs, clad in cowboy hats, ski masks, or paramilitary uniforms,” writes Grillo. “The music screams out of luxury pickup trucks and shiny, white Hummers with blacked-out windows, which speed down the road …”
A simple search will reveal the range of tunes honouring Guzmán — ones that praise his escape next to ones that condemn his capture.
Many of the most notorious drug lords have gained their greatest fame after their deaths. Like charity work, narcos likely see these ballads as a way to gain the standing they desire without waiting for governments or rivals to usher them into the next world.
It’s a tribute they seem eager to secure.
“Traffickers actually pay composers to write songs about them,” writes Grillo.
According to a music producer in Sinaloa, ‘For the narcos, getting a ballad about them is like getting a doctorate.”
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