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Mexican drug lord Guzman played Santa to poor farmers in his state

The lush Mexican mountain stronghold of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is dotted with hamlets where poor farmers live in humble homes, scrape by on crops and lionize the fugitive drug kingpin.

world Updated: Jul 19, 2015 22:00 IST
El Chapo Guzman,Mexican drug lord,Guzman's escape
In this 1993 file photo, Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo Guzman" is shown to the press after his arrest at the high security prison of Almoloya de Juarez, outskirts of Mexico City. Mexico's security commission has announced on early July 12 that the top drug lrod had escaped from a maximum security prison for the second time (AP Photo)

The lush Mexican mountain stronghold of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is dotted with hamlets where poor farmers live in humble homes, scrape by on crops and lionize the fugitive drug kingpin.

One week after Guzman escaped prison again, his legend has grown in his home region in northwestern Sinaloa state, where he is revered as a benevolent bandit despite his drug cartel's murderous record.

US authorities have intelligence suggesting Guzman is already in the region, the safest place for him because of the support he enjoys, an American security official told AFP.

In Badiraguato, the municipality that encompasses villages where some of Mexico's most infamous drug lords were born, residents hope Guzman will revive the economy.

They say the Sinaloa drug cartel boss employed farmers, sent food to nursing homes and gave toys to children at Christmas before his February 2014 capture.

"People are happy because he helps a lot," said Gerardo Avila, 22, eating a watermelon under scorching heat in front of his small clothing shop near Badiraguato's town hall.

"He gives money. He creates jobs. He helps more than presidents," Avila said. What kind of jobs? "Working on the hills, cutting trees."
Erica, a 40-year-old with a candy cart in front of the church, said people believe Guzman has been good to the community.

When Guzman is out of prison, "people work, there's movement, but up there," said Erica, lifting her chin toward the mountains.

But Guzman's business, of course, is not logging. Farmers grow marijuana and opium poppies high on the hills.

"It has been a necessary evil," said Enrique Amarillas, 50, head of a local civic association, complaining that the "government has not created the conditions to combat poverty."

Mayor Mario Valenzuela estimated that more than 50 percent of farmers grow drugs.

"Unfortunately opium poppies, marijuana are still produced in Badiraguato. But I insist, it's not the only economic activity," Valenzuela told AFP.

"They produce marijuana to survive," he said. "The business is for people like Chapo Guzman, those who distribute."

Chapo's mom

While Badiraguato boasts an elaborate arch welcoming visitors, paved roads and a wooden suspension bridge over a river, its surrounding villages are less fortunate.

The municipality is the second poorest among 18 in the state, with one-fifth of its population of 32,600 living in extreme poverty, according to government figures.

Badiraguato's domain includes hamlets perched between thick forests. They lack running water and are only accessible with all-terrain vehicles.

One village is La Tuna, where Guzman was born in 1957 and his 86-year-old mother lives in a large house built by her son.

"She's 100 percent dedicated to her ranch and her apostolical faith. People respect her, not because she's the mother of Chapo Guzman, but because she earns it," Valenzuela said.

The region produced other veteran drug capos, including Rafael Caro Quintero.

Caro Quintero was freed over a legal technicality in 2013 after serving 28 years of a 40-year sentence for the murder of a US undercover agent in 1985.

Badiraguato's mayor said marines swarmed villages last year and last month in failed attempts to rearrest him.

Another capo, "Don Neto" Fonseca, built a marble tomb with four columns resembling a Greek pantheon on top of a hill for the day he dies. He is languishing in prison.

Below the mausoleum, villagers live in small homes, raising chickens and shopping in a subsidized food store.

"There are no criminals here. Just work. No wealth," said Martin Medina, 44, sitting on a porch alongside four other farmers, as chickens clucked nearby.

The US security official said Guzman is believed to be somewhere in the Golden Triangle, a remote drug-running region that includes the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua.

"It's his stomping grounds, people love him there," the official said on condition of anonymity.

The official said the best chance of catching Guzman would be for federal forces to flood the area.

While Badiraguato's mayor said there were more troops in town, no major movements of federal forces or checkpoints were seen on long
stretches of winding roads and dirt paths when an AFP reporter visited the region on Friday.

'Normal work'

Guzman, 58, has eluded a massive nationwide manhunt since his July 11 escape through a tunnel under his maximum-security prison cell near Mexico City.

Last year, marines captured him in the Sinaloa coastal resort of Mazatlan after he fled the state capital, Culiacan, through an escape tunnel in one of his houses.

Support for him runs strong in Culiacan. A cross illuminated by four lights sits in a parking lot where one of his 10 children was gunned down in 2008.

"Sales went down by 50 percent after they captured Guzman," said the owner of a garage in front of the cross. "Whether we're right or wrong, he brings a lot of work."

But not everybody is a fan.

Back in Badiraguato, a 12-year-old boy working in a stall that sells kitchenware in the plaza said he considers Guzman a criminal.

Does he want to be like El Chapo when he grows up? "No, I don't want to be like him. I want to do normal work, right here."


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First Published: Jul 19, 2015 21:27 IST