Pubdate: Sat, 18 Jul 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company
Authors: William Neuman and Azam Ahmed


CULIACAN, Mexico - When Jose Antonio Sevilla and his three brothers 
learned that the notorious drug trafficker known as El Chapo had 
escaped from prison, they jumped out of their chairs and shouted with glee.

"El Chapo got out! He's the greatest of them all," said Mr. Sevilla, 
19, a self-professed fan of the drug kingpin, whose full name is 
Joaquin Guzman Loera. "He was famous before, but now he's even more famous."

Mr. Sevilla, an auto mechanic, was so excited that he attended a 
march through the streets of Culiacan, the capital of Mr. Guzman's 
home state, this week to celebrate. He carried a sign that a woman 
gave him, which read, "El Chapo is more of a president than Pena 
Nieto," a reference to Mexico's president, Enrique Pena Nieto.

Here in Sinaloa State, where Mr. Guzman was born, and even in other 
parts of Mexico, the drug trafficker's stunning escape through a 
hidden tunnel under what was supposed to be the country's most secure 
prison has enhanced his status as an outlaw folk hero.

There are few illusions about the damage Mr. Guzman has done. 
American officials accuse him of contributing to "the death and 
destruction of millions of lives across the globe through drug 
addiction, violence and corruption."

Yet for many Mexicans, he is an unusual combination of Robin Hood and 
billionaire, a source of mirth, grudging respect and even outright 
reverence because of his repeated ability to outfox the country's 
deeply unpopular government.

He fought the law, and he won. He beat what many Mexicans see as a 
corrupt and feckless governing class. And Mexico, just like America, 
loves an outlaw.

"Why do people admire him?" said Adrian Cabrera, a blogger in 
Culiacan wearing a black T-shirt with a picture of El Chapo. "Because 
he's a living legend. He's like Al Capone. He's like Lucky Luciano. 
Like Tony Soprano. Like Scarface. He's like a character on a 
television show, except that he's alive, he's real."

In the cultural center in Badiraguato, the main town in the 
municipality where Mr. Guzman grew up, there is a list of the 
"notable people" born in the area, including a general in the Mexican 
Revolution, a journalist, a lawyer and a congressman.

There is no mention of its most famous son, Mr. Guzman, but the 
center's director of events argues that El Chapo deserves to be on 
the list, too.

"He has never had any problems with people here," said the events 
director, Guadalupe Olivas. "He was poor, and now he has lots of 
money and lots of power."

Mr. Guzman was born in the 1950s in a remote hamlet in the lumpy 
green mountains that are the backdrop to the state capital, in an 
area known as the Golden Triangle, which today is Mexico's prime 
marijuana growing region.

Over the years, Mr. Guzman rose through the ranks of Mexican drug 
gangs until he came to head the largest of them all, the Sinaloa 
cartel, named for the state where he continued to spend a good deal 
of time even as a wanted man. When he was arrested last year, the 
authorities found him at the Sinaloan beach resort of Mazatlan.

Mr. Guzman operates a vast international organization. Forbes 
magazine has included him in its list of the world's richest people, 
with an estimated net worth of more than $1 billion.

He escaped from prison once before, by some accounts hiding in a 
laundry cart, and his most recent breakout was highly elaborate: He 
passed through a sophisticated tunnel about a mile long, one equipped 
with lights, ventilation and even a motorcycle on rails to excavate the dirt.

"It took a lot of intelligence to do that," said Erica Lara, who 
sells shaved ice in the plaza of Badiraguato. "There are powerful 
people who have to serve their entire sentences. But he escaped two times."

Many here said that Mr. Guzman helped residents, often in small ways. 
A family with a sick member might receive a visitor delivering money 
for treatment, they said, although none could point to a specific example.

While Sinaloa is Mexico's tomato-growing capital, the area around 
Badiraguato has the distinction of being the cradle of the Mexican 
drug trade. Besides Mr. Guzman, several other major traffickers were 
born here or in the nearby hills. Many here say that the streets were 
paved using money from traffickers.

While buying a shaved ice in the Badiraguato plaza, Amairany Avilez, 
20, called Mr. Guzman "my hero."

She said that the economy in the region depended on Mr. Guzman, and 
that people might now get work on land he owns or could grow more 
marijuana to sell to his organization. "When they arrested him, 
people around here had to go back to growing corn," Ms. Avilez said. 
"Now the corn will turn into marijuana."

Experts say that drug production does not depend much on whether a 
single trafficker, no matter how influential, is in or out of jail.

Beyond that, Sinaloa last year ranked second in the government's 
measure of intentional homicides per capita, at a level more than two 
and a half times the national average. Yet many people here said that 
their state was relatively calm thanks to Mr. Guzman's influence.

Scarlett Lopez, 22, who works at a finance company in Culiacan, said 
that while she disapproved of Mr. Guzman's drug trafficking, she was 
glad he was out of prison because it meant that even worse drug gangs 
- - the Zetas, for instance, known for cutting off people's heads and 
other acts of graphic violence - would be less likely to try to 
encroach on the state.

"I feel better because we're protected," she said. "There are people 
who are a lot worse."

Near a government office building here in the state capital is an 
elaborate shrine dedicated to a folk saint known as Jesus Malverde. 
He is often called the narco-saint because he is worshiped by many 
drug traffickers. Malverde is supposedly based on a local man who 
lived from 1870 to 1909, and was known as a bandit who stole from the 
rich to give to the poor. He is also worshiped by poor people, 
farmers, fishermen and others.

This week, a stream of devotees visited the shrine, some lighting 
candles, some kneeling to pray before a plaster bust of Malverde, 
portrayed with black hair and mustache, a white western-style shirt 
and black neckerchief. There were flowers on either side, and the air 
was dense with the smell of hot wax. A statue of the Virgin of 
Guadalupe stood by the entrance. The walls were covered in plaques 
left by devotees, thanking Malverde for favors or miracles.

The government has offered a reward of about $3.8 million for 
information leading to Mr. Guzman's capture, but people visiting the 
shrine said they would not lend the government a hand.

"The drug dealers do more for the people than the government does," 
said Eric Reyes, 33, a systems engineer from Mexico City, who stopped 
by the shrine out of curiosity while on vacation. "If you live in a 
dealer's territory he treats you well. The government won't do 
anything for you. It's all bureaucracy and red tape."

Such sentiment appears to prevail through much of the country and 
across social strata, including in the more upscale districts of 
Mexico City, where many people displayed a grudging admiration for Mr. Guzman.

Driving the private enjoyment of his escape is a deep cynicism about 
the government, which has such low credibility among Mexicans that 
many refuse to believe the official story about how El Chapo got 
away. Many assume that he could not have escaped without help from 
within the prison, and others question whether the tunnel was not 
simply an elaborate ruse to hide corruption that extends to the highest levels.

Conspiracy theories are rife. The fact that the breakout occurred as 
the president was starting a trip to France is seen as indicative of 
higher-level collusion. The fact that a picture released by the 
authorities shows Mr. Guzman with a shaved head, while video of his 
escape shows that he had a full head of hair, is also cause for suspicion.

The escape and the humiliation it has heaped on the government have 
set off a kind of national catharsis. And the fact that Mr. Pena 
Nieto did not cut short his lengthy visit to France, where he has 
gone to Napoleon's tomb and received medals, only confirmed to many 
how out of touch the government is.

"The government is Chapo's," said Genero Reyes Martinez, 30, in 
Mexico City. "I bet he walked straight out of the main gate. That 
tunnel was an illusion."

William Neuman reported from Culiacan, and Azam Ahmed from Mexico City.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom