‘Lord of the tunnels’: How folk legend El Chapo earned his nickname

  • AFP, Mexico City
  • Updated: Jan 09, 2016 23:14 IST
Drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted into a helicopter at Mexico City's airport on January 8, 2016 following his recapture during an intense military operation in Los Mochis, in Sinaloa State. (AFP)

With his daring underground escapes and ability to sneak narcotics under the US-Mexico border, Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman earned a new nickname: “The Lord of Tunnels.”

But Guzman’s latest cat-and-mouse game with the authorities reached the end of the tunnel on Friday when President Enrique Pena Nieto announced his recapture on Twitter, declaring triumphantly: “Mission accomplished.”

Before that, the man whose old nickname means “Shorty” had used the money from a drug empire whose tentacles reach Europe and Asia to dig himself out of trouble.

The bathtub in one of his houses in Culiacan, capital of his northwestern home state of Sinaloa, opened into an escape route through drainage systems that he used to flee from troops in early 2014.

US and Mexican authorities have regularly discovered sophisticated tunnels with rails and electricity used to ship marijuana, cocaine and other drugs into the United States, with cash and weapons coming the other way.

Folk legend

The 58-year-old Sinaloa drug cartel leader’s legend soared after he humiliated authorities by escaping prison in his most ambitious tunnel yet.

On July 11, 2015, after just 17 months at the Altiplano maximum-security prison in central Mexico, Guzman slipped through a hole in his cell’s shower, climbed on a motorcycle mounted on rails, and traveled 1.5 kilometers (one mile) through the tunnel.

T-shirts featuring fugitive Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman hang for sale inside the shrine of a faith healer in Mexico City. (AP)

US and Mexican law enforcement officials say Guzman then flew to his home turf at the Sinaloa-Durango state border because he is revered as a modern-day Robin Hood in the region. His octogenarian mother still lives in his village of La Tuna.

Marines nearly captured him in October 2015 in a remote mountain region between the two states. Authorities said Guzman injured his face and a leg while falling in the rough terrain, but special forces failed to nab him.

AFP journalists who visited the area weeks after the operation found bullet-riddled homes and cars. Residents said military helicopters fired on the community during the operation, prompting hundreds to flee.

Guzman had been previously captured on February 22, 2014, in the Sinaloa resort of Mazatlan. He was found in a condo with his wife and their young twin daughters.

He had been on the lam for 13 years after escaping a first time in 2001 from another prison, in western Jalisco state, by hiding in a laundry cart. He had spent eight years in prison following his 1993 capture in Guatemala.

Guzman became a legend of Mexico’s underworld, with musicians singing his praises in folk ballads known as “narcocorridos,” tributes to drug capos.

He is said to have been brazen enough to walk into restaurants in his state of Sinaloa, ask diners to hand their cell phones to his bodyguards, eat calmly and pay everyone’s tabs before leaving.

‘Public Enemy Number One’

Born on April 4, 1957, to a family of farmers in La Tuna, Guzman had humble beginnings in a region known as a bastion of drug trafficking.

He dropped out of primary school to work in marijuana and opium poppy fields as drug consumption rose in the neighbouring United States.

He was recruited by Guadalajara cartel boss Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the godfather of Mexico’s modern drug cartels.

Guzman’s job was to contact drug traffickers in Colombia.

Photograph of a notice published in newspapers offering 60 million Mexican pesos (3.8 USD approximately) reward to anyone with information leading to the recapture of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, in Mexico City. (AFP)

After Felix Gallardo was arrested in 1989, Guzman’s Sinaloa drug cartel began its meteoric rise.

But he had enemies.

A gunfight in 1993 at the airport of Guadalajara killed the western city’s archbishop, Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, allegedly because he was mistaken for Guzman.

His ability to sneak tons of cocaine, heroin and marijuana into the United States made him “Public Enemy Number One” in Chicago, a moniker that had been given to US prohibition-era mafia boss Al Capone.

Guzman “easily surpassed the carnage and social destruction that was caused by Capone,” the Chicago Crime Commission said in February 2013.

The mustachioed drug lord made Forbes magazine’s list of billionaires until he was left out in 2013 because he was believed to have spent much of his wealth on protection.

Guzman married an 18-year-old beauty queen, Emma Coronel, in 2007 and is believed to have 10 children with various women.

His family has paid dearly for his life of crime. One of his brothers was killed in a Mexican jail in December 2004 and a son was shot dead in a Culiacan shopping center parking lot in May 2008.

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