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Haven for drug kingpin ‘El Chapo’: In many Mexicans’ hearts

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CULIACAN, Mexico – When Josi 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 Sevilla, 19, a self-professed fan of the drug kingpin, whose full name is Joaqumn Guzman Loera. "He was famous before, but now he’s even more famous."

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

Here in Sinaloa state, where Guzman was born, and even throughout 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 Guzman has done. U.S. 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 on the front. "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 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, 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."

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, 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.

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 Guzman helped local 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 Guzman, several other major traffickers were born here or in the nearby hills.

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

She said that the economy in the region depended on Guzman, and that people might now get work on land he owns or could grow more marijuana to sell to his organization. This, though experts say that drug production does not depend much on whether a single trafficker, no matter how influential, is in or out of jail.

"When they arrested him, people around here had to go back to growing corn," Avilez said. "Now the corn will turn into marijuana."

Sinaloa last year ranked second in the government’s measure of intentional homicides per capita, at a level more than 2 1/2 times the national average. Yet many people here said their state was relatively calm thanks to Guzman’s influence.

Scarlett Lspez, 22, who works at a finance company in Culiacan, said that while she disapproved of 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 committing 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 Jeszs Malverde. He is often dubbed the narco-saint, because he is worshipped 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 worshipped 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 in the small chapel was dense with the smell of hot wax. A statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe stood in a corner 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 Guzman’s capture, but people visiting the shrine said that if 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 the capital, where many people displayed a grudging admiration for 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 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 Peqa 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 Martmnez, 30, in Mexico City. "I bet he walked straight out of the main gate. That tunnel was an illusion."

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