NEW MEXICO/CHICAGO – Alfonso Lara says the only person who could keep him safe from crime was the most notorious drug lord in the world.
Masked men robbed Lara, a 38-year-old grocer, at gunpoint three times, hijacking his farm truck laden with brooms and toilet paper for his store in Badiraguato, the scorched-brown Sierra Madre hometown he shared with Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, head of the Sinaloa Cartel. Lara said Guzman ordered the bandits rounded up, a gesture that earned him loyalty.
Word of Guzman’s capture at a Pacific resort Saturday drew a starkly different reaction 2,591 km away in Chicago, where he was branded “Public Enemy No. 1” for controlling 80 percent of the narcotics trade and fueling street-gang violence in the city.
“He’s not a god because he’s helped people,” said Ausencio Alvarez, 37, a restaurant worker in Little Village, the heart of Chicago’s Mexican community, noting that many people had been voicing support for Guzman on Facebook in recent days. “Children, women and innocents have died.”
Tens of thousands of Mexicans were killed in the years it took Guzman to consolidate control over drug-trafficking routes between Mexico and the U.S. In Chicago, which Guzman once called his “home port,” the police department spent almost $100 million on overtime to help cut its homicide total by 18 percent in 2013 after more than 500 murders the previous year, many of them related to the drug-dealing gangs that serve as Sinaloa’s retail operation.
Even those not directly affected by the violence on Chicago’s streets welcomed Guzman’s arrest as a sign of progress for the quality of law enforcement in Mexico. Authorities there were embarrassed in 2001 after he escaped from prison in a laundry truck.
El Chapo, or “Shorty,” was captured by Mexican security forces in a Mazatlan condominium along the country’s Pacific coast. The U.S. Treasury Department has called Guzman, who is in his 50s, the “world’s most powerful drug trafficker.”
In his home state of Sinaloa, the cultlike worship of Guzman helped purchase devotion that allowed him to move more freely than commonly thought during the 13 years since his prison escape.
“He’s both a folk hero and a supervillain,” Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said in a telephone interview from Houston. “He’s been able to use the right combination of brutal force, but also incentives.”
One such inducement was taking care of Badiraguato, whose town center is lined with trimmed palm trees, two-story gated homes and a new fountain that spits water lit with different colors, a contrast to the cinder block huts on the side of the highway.
Stories of Guzman paving roads and setting up power grids in the mountains are mere speculation, said Mayor Mario Valenzuela, though he’s certain the avocados from Guzman’s ranch are the biggest he’s ever seen. And the kingpin’s mother, Consuelo Loera, is a very kind and “nonostentatious” woman, the mayor added.
“All people do bad things, but not everyone gives something back,” said Lara, the grocer, a stocky man with a buzz-cut and red cheeks.
Guzman’s narcotics operation “contributed to the death and destruction of millions of lives across the globe through drug addiction, violence, and corruption,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the day of Guzman’s arrest.
The city of Culiacan, considered the Sinaloa Cartel’s base, wasn’t immune to the murders. Yet its businesses didn’t experience the kind of extortion that others did, said Jesus Martin Robles, the deputy state attorney general. In Mazatlan, restaurants reported being blackmailed to pay fees in exchange for their safety, Robles said Tuesday.
“Sinaloa didn’t suffer as much” as other states during the height of the drug war, said Joel Quinonez, director of the Criminology Institute in Culiacan. “Guzman exercised control and equilibrium in the way he went about his illegal activities. He was seen as a benefactor, someone who helped people.”
Jaime Uriarte, a municipal employee in Badiraguato for 21 years, said Guzman employed much of the town in his drug trade, and his arrest may hurt the local economy.
“It’s a disgrace,” said Uriarte, dressed in the government’s white-and-blue striped shirt as he sat on a park bench watching the town square being remodeled. “This is a loss for the community.”
Chicago’s Little Village was among the U.S. neighborhoods that paid the highest price for the drug trafficking Guzman oversaw, filling a power vacuum left when the city’s traditional gang leaders were incarcerated.
Aside from the biting cold on a blustery February afternoon, the community resembled a northern Mexican town, teaming with cars blaring music and Spanish-language signs for stores that sell everything from “lucha libre” wrestling masks to elaborate wedding dresses.
Maria Martinez, 20, who sells traditional fried Mexican snacks and corn from a family-owned stand, said Guzman’s arrest is unlikely to dent the neighborhood’s street crime, as someone will simply take his place.
She said many community residents don’t like to talk about the drug trade because some see it helping immigrants who lack better opportunities. “For them, he’s a hero because it’s his merchandise they’re distributing,” Martinez said.
In Chicago’s other major Mexican-American neighborhood, Pilsen, statues of Mexican heroes adorned an ice-covered courtyard outside Benito Juarez Community Academy high school. Adrian Magna, 19, waited at a bus stop in front of images of Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican revolutionary, and Aztec ruler Cuauhtemoc, each of them gifts from Mexican officials to the community. Teenagers in Pilsen know Guzman better than those iconic figures, Magna said.
“They see him as an idol,” Magna said.
The 1.68-meter-tall Guzman had eluded capture earlier this month from a home in the city of Culiacan by slipping into a tunnel system connected to sewage pipes and six other houses in the area, Mexican authorities said. Phone-tracking devices led marines to the Miramar condominium in the beach resort town of Mazatlan.
Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel was named after his home state and is known for beheading its enemies or hanging their bodies in public places. These tactics, coupled with his business acumen, helped him build a personal fortune of about $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine. Musicians have written dozens of songs, known as “narcocorridos,” glorifying his exploits.
Beyond the ballads, the importance of El Chapo to authorities on both sides of the Rio Grande was evident by the maneuvering over where he will be prosecuted. In addition to charges in Mexico, Guzman is facing indictment in Chicago, Miami, San Diego, El Paso, Texas, Brooklyn, New York, and elsewhere.
Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said Tuesday on Radio Formula that he had spoken with Holder, who raised the possibility of Guzman’s extradition to the U.S. Murillo said Mexican authorities would need to review the issue.
At a hearing Wednesday in Washington, Rep. Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said he was urging the Obama administration to extradite Guzman to the U.S. for trial because he’s escaped from a Mexican prison before.
“I want him to face justice in the United States and make sure he is never out on the streets again,” McCaul said.
Three hours from Badiraguato, in the Sierra Madre, along highway and rocky dirt roads passable only with four-wheel-drive vehicles, sits La Tuna, the hamlet where Guzman was born.
His mother’s pink colonnaded complex is fitted with a shingled roof, satellite dish and a gazebo in the garden, unlike other homes, which have corrugated metal rooftops.
Despite the poverty, Guzman is lionized here for putting people to work, said Giobany Araujo, a 27-year-old storekeeper who claimed Guzman would regularly send food to the village of 300 people.
“We’re thankful for everything he’s done for us and hope he gets out of jail soon,” Araujo said. “He’s not like Robin Hood (only) because he didn’t rob from the rich — he worked for it.”
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