Ruthless Mexican Drug Trafficker Was A Robin Hood In Home State

  • Mexican marines raided several houses in the working-class neighborhood of La Libertad, from which Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman initially eluded arrest. The morning after the famed drug lord's apprehension, a man walks in front of a store that carries El Chapo's name.
    Hide caption
    Mexican marines raided several houses in the working-class neighborhood of La Libertad, from which Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman initially eluded arrest. The morning after the famed drug lord's apprehension, a man walks in front of a store that carries El Chapo's name.
    Encarni Pindado for NPR
  • Prior to his capture, Guzman's various residences were raided. He escaped from this house through a series of gutters used as tunnels that connect with other houses and drainage areas in Culiacan, Sinaloa. The raid also found fake plastic cucumbers and plantains stuffed with drugs.
    Hide caption
    Prior to his capture, Guzman's various residences were raided. He escaped from this house through a series of gutters used as tunnels that connect with other houses and drainage areas in Culiacan, Sinaloa. The raid also found fake plastic cucumbers and plantains stuffed with drugs.
    Encarni Pindado/for NPR
  • The opening to one of the many tunnels that authorities discovered were used by Guzman as escape routes. The neighborhood of La Libertad is known for its complex drainage system, which provided easy access in and out of various safe houses.
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    The opening to one of the many tunnels that authorities discovered were used by Guzman as escape routes. The neighborhood of La Libertad is known for its complex drainage system, which provided easy access in and out of various safe houses.
    Encarni Pindado/for NPR
  • Attendee at the shrine of Jesus Malverde, an icon in Sinaloa. His existence is disputed but he is legendary in Mexico, and is said to have been a Robin Hood-like bandit who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Although not officially recognized by the Catholic church, he is venerated as a saint, particularly in "narco" culture and in Sinaloa.
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    Attendee at the shrine of Jesus Malverde, an icon in Sinaloa. His existence is disputed but he is legendary in Mexico, and is said to have been a Robin Hood-like bandit who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Although not officially recognized by the Catholic church, he is venerated as a saint, particularly in "narco" culture and in Sinaloa.
    Encarni Pindado/for NPR
  • Mariachis playing at the shrine of Jesus Malverde.
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    Mariachis playing at the shrine of Jesus Malverde.
    Encarni Pindado/for NPR
  • A soldier picks up a fake cucumber commonly used by cartels to smuggle drugs. Four days after Guzman's capture, Mexican marines raided a ranch in Culiacan, where they found a pit filled with empty plastic cucumbers.
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    A soldier picks up a fake cucumber commonly used by cartels to smuggle drugs. Four days after Guzman's capture, Mexican marines raided a ranch in Culiacan, where they found a pit filled with empty plastic cucumbers.
    Encarni Pindado/for NPR
  • Federal police and marines encircle an area at the ranch Culiacan where they found the empty plastic cucumbers.
    Hide caption
    Federal police and marines encircle an area at the ranch Culiacan where they found the empty plastic cucumbers.
    Encarni Pindado/for NPR

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Drug cartel leader Joaquin Guzman, known as "El Chapo," was formally charged on Monday with violating drug trafficking laws in Mexico. While officials celebrate his capture, many in his home state of Sinaloa — who viewed the kingpin as a helper of the poor and a keeper of the peace — are not as pleased.

Guzman got his nickname "Chapo" because of his short, stocky stature — he's only 5 foot 6. But given the fact that he escaped from a maximum security prison some 13 years ago, has since evaded capture despite a worldwide dragnet, and ran one the most far-reaching drug organizations in the world with annual profits in the billions of dollars, many in Sinaloa say he's larger than life.

At a cemetery just outside Culiacan, Sinaloa's capital, four 20-somethings are drinking scotch and singing narcocorridos, or ballads heralding the life of drug traffickers.

A group of youths spend a Sunday afternoon at their friend's tomb drinking and singing narcocorridos (ballads that celebrate the life and exploits of drug traffickers). Christina (right), a 21-year-old psychology student, says drug trafficking is a way of life in Sinaloa.

A group of youths spend a Sunday afternoon at their friend's tomb drinking and singing narcocorridos (ballads that celebrate the life and exploits of drug traffickers). Christina (right), a 21-year-old psychology student, says drug trafficking is a way of life in Sinaloa. Encarni Pindado for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Encarni Pindado for NPR

Christina, a 21-year-old psychology student, says the narco-culture runs through their veins; it's part of life. The four friends are sitting around the grave of Christina's boyfriend, who was killed last year in a shootout.

Enormous, ornate mausoleums — some of which are two-stories tall with air conditioning — fill the cemetery, which is known to be the final resting spot of drug traffickers. A few plots down from the partying friends, a banner hangs over the grave of a recently deceased man. He's pictured by a serene lake, clutching an AK-47.

Christina says no one here is happy about Guzman's arrest. Because of Guzman, she says, everything is under control — people don't steal, kidnap or extort here. And the partiers say he helped the poor, paved roads, gave people jobs — the list of good deeds goes on.

Now thought to be 55 years old, Guzman grew up poor in the Sierra Madre of Sinaloa. He is said to have dropped out of school in the third grade and took up the drug trade as a teenager. He rose quickly through the ranks, and by the 1990s had developed an international trade that favored stuffing cocaine in 747s and marijuana in tunnels brazenly constructed under the U.S.-Mexico border.

Despite his Robin Hood reputation, Guzman was a vicious killer who's responsible for much of the country's deadly drug war, says George Grayson, an expert on Mexico's traffickers.

"Ruthless in his own right and his efforts to seem like a good guy were sheer public relations at which he was extremely talented," Grayson says.

What will happen to the Sinaloa cartel without its leader is the pressing question here and has many worried about a violent fight for power.

At a Flag Day celebration in Culiacan's city hall on Monday, all public officials attending were asked just that.

Sinaloa Gov. Mario Lopez Valdez says no one knows, but with so much money at stake, he says there undoubtedly will be a fight for control here. Valdez estimates the cartel took in $500 million a year — experts put it much higher at $3 billion.

At a large shrine downtown to Jesus Malverde, the saint of drug traffickers, worshiper Pedro Alvarez says it's too bad Guzman was captured, because he kept the peace. And thanks to Chapo, Alvarez says, his small town in a nearby state is much safer and richer, too.

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