As Mexico and the United States celebrate the capture of Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, the world’s most wanted drug lord, a mix of fear and mourning grips the towns and ranches in the remote mountains where he was born.
In the sierra of Mexico’s northwestern state of Sinaloa, where marijuana and opium poppies have been grown for decades, many view Guzman as a latter-day Robin Hood who brought jobs to the rural poor and fought off the incursion of rival gangs.
Guzman, whose nickname means “Shorty”, built the most powerful drug cartel in the world and escaped from prison twice in the last 15 years, inspiring the next generation of smugglers and gunslingers.
“He’s like a legend. The people wept because this is his land and because they caught him,” said Jesus Ramos, a 19-year old bricklayer as he sat in the town square of Guzman’s native Badiraguato, passing the time. Besides employing farmers to grow drugs in the valleys around here, Guzman is also credited with paying for public works and giving away toys to children.
“He helps more than the government. Well, he helped. He has been taken down now,” Ramos said.
Guzman was recaptured in the northwestern city of Los Mochis on Friday following a bloody shootout between his guards and security forces, six months after he had escaped a maximum security prison through a tunnel from his cell.
His decision to hold a secretive meeting with Hollywood star Sean Penn in a jungle hideout late last year helped to cement his downfall, as the government kept tabs on their movements, sources say. “That was unexpected. They thought he would be killed before he would be caught,” said Gilberto Cardenas, 51, as he tended his vegetable stand near the center of Badiraguato.
Guzman’s escape in July embarrassed Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, and government sources have told Reuters that Mexico aims to extradite him to the United States to prevent another jail break.
In his home town, residents believe he is now going away for good. “They will probably extradite him. That is going to have an economic impact, because he helped a lot of people,” Cardenas said as he weighed avocados on a scale for a customer.
The town’s mayor has estimated that about half of the population of Badiraguato make their living from the drug trade. Locals are given seeds and radios by Guzman’s armed henchman, who patrol the surrounding valleys on quad bikes.
“Many people worked with him and now they will not have any money,” said Vididiana Aviles, who sells beauty supplies. “Even those of us who did not work with him said, ‘what a drag’.”
Guzman became notorious for using tunnels to move tonnes of drugs into the United States as well as secret underground escape routes from the safe houses where he stayed.
After his capture on Friday, he was taken back to the same prison where he escaped from in July, when his engineers tunneled nearly a mile to burrow into his cell.
“He is digging another hole now,” said Guadalupe Medina, laughing, as she served food in a Badiraguato restaurant. Some residents fear his arrest and eventual extradition could open the door for other drug gangsters to move in to this area and throw their weight around.
“It will be less safe, because you know if the cartel is weaker, the others are going to want to move in,” said Alberto Alvarado, 20. “He took care of the people. Neither kidnapping nor extortion was permitted here.”