BADIRAGUATO, Mexico » People living in the hometown of drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman have heard stories of his benevolence: gifts of medicine for the poor, deliveries of drinking water to storm-stricken towns. But finding anyone who’s actually received or even seen such a gift is another matter.
In Badiraguato, the small mountain town that is part of Guzman’s rags-to-crime riches mythology, none of the two dozen people interviewed by The Associated Press could point out evidence of his legendary largesse.
"I don’t see a single building producing jobs, a single piece of public works, a soccer field, a sewer, a school, water systems, a clinic or hospital, not a single one that you can say was built by drug traffickers or their money," Mayor Mario Valenzuela said.
If Guzman or his cartel had invested in their hometowns, he said, "they’d look different: They would have paved roads or drainage systems, but they don’t."
Guzman’s escape on July 11 from a prison near Mexico City has focused attention again on Badiraguato, the county seat of a township that includes the hamlet of La Tuna, where El Chapo’s mother still lives.
The roads to La Tuna are still washed-out dirt tracks, and Badiraguato itself has none of the flashy accoutrements of money — luxury car dealerships, palatial mausoleums, acres of fancy, gated communities of new homes, or dozens of street money-changers offering cheap dollars — that are abundant in Culiacan, the state capital, 1 1/2 hours away. The town’s big projects include a new balcony for the town hall that looks out over the sleepy square dominated by a 19th-century church, where residents seek shade from the punishing Sinaloa sun.
Tucked into the foothills where the coastal stretches of flat corn and tomato fields meet the imposing mountains of the Sierra Madre, Badiraguato remains mired in poverty, Valenzuela acknowledges that many of the township’s residents make a living growing marijuana or opium poppies.
Guzman grew up here, the son of a poor famer. His rise as a crime boss has been surrounded by mythology, a Hollywood version of an old-school Mafioso — ruthless, but yet honorable. Songs have been written in his honor and some locals extol him as a Robin Hood-type figure who is careful to leave innocents out of his deadly score-settlings.
"Chapo Guzman isn’t violent," Valenzuela said about a man accused of hundreds of murders. "He doesn’t shoot it out with the government."
That’s unlike the reputation of the New Generation Jalisco cartel to the south, which is alleged to have brought down a military helicopter May 1 with a rocket-propelled missile. Or the Zetas, who’ve fueled their notoriety in central Mexico with grisly beheadings and the hanging of bodies across public highways. Or Guerreros Unidos, the cartel alleged to have killed 43 college students last fall.
For many who live in the state that gives name to Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel, he is seen as a lesser evil.
Gabriel, a civil engineer, returned home recently to Culiacan after a year and a half working on road projects in the central state of Zacatecas, which is controlled by Mexico’s bloodiest cartel, the Zetas. There, he said, gunmen pulled him over and demanded he either pay protection money or get out of town.
"They are worse. They are indiscriminate. They’ll kill seven people just to get the one they want," he said. The Sinaloa cartel, he said, leaves ordinary people alone, "there is a certain respect."
Still, the man in his 30s wouldn’t give his last name for fear of reprisals.
Badiraguato is not immune to violence. The township of 30,000 regularly reports a homicide rate at least five times the national average. And while Sinaloa’s population is less than that of 13 other states and the federal district, it consistently ranks among the deadliest five or six states in terms of homicides. So far this year, there are more killings here than in Michoacan or Tamaulipas, two states often in the headlines for warring cartels, vigilante justice, beheadings and daytime shootouts.
Violence, threats and fear in Sinaloa have displaced poor farming families, with hundreds fleeing the mountainous township of Sinaloa de Leyva over the last five years.
Dozens of families left the village of Ocurahui after drug gangs, particularly the Sinaloa cartel, pressured local farmers to plant opium poppies in order to counter falling prices for marijuana. Residents who didn’t want to grow drug crops faced kidnappings or even death. Many of them are barely hanging on as refugees without homes or jobs, living on the fringes of the Sinaloa cities of Surutato, Guamuchil and Culiacan.
"We came with only what we could grab, or what we wearing," said Mauro Diaz, 20, an Ocurahui resident who lives as a squatter in one of a half-dozen tiny abandoned cinderblock houses on the outskirts of Guamuchil.
Diaz ekes out a living as an assistant bricklayer, staying with his girlfriend in one bare room with a mattress on the floor and water leaking from the roof. He largely has given up hope of returning to the pine-covered hills of his village.
"Why return if it’s only going to get us into trouble, if in a little while it gets bad again and they exile us again?" Diaz said.
Yet, the mythology surrounding Guzman lives on.
Lucero Uriarte, a high-school student in Badiraguato, said of the drug lord: "He has helped a lot of people — more than anyone else, the poor — because he knows what they’re going through."