This is a tale of rags to riches. This is the tale of a man who received no formal education past third grade. The story of a man who grew up on the streets of Mexico. The son of a poor farmer, who worked hard to create a multimillion-dollar empire. This man exceeded all expectations and has been dubbed a logistical genius. He has appeared on both Forbes’ World’s Billionaires List and Most Powerful People List. He claims to have killed between two to three thousand people and is rumored to have fathered twelve to thirteen children. He is suspected to be illiterate, yet capable of running his empire from prison. A man who managed to escape from jail twice and evade the police for more than a decade. A man currently imprisoned in New York awaiting prosecution for drug charges. His name is Joaquín Guzmán, better known as El Chapo. Leader of the notorious Sinaloa Cartel.
There are always three sides to every story. Yours, mine, and the truth. All the stories about El Chapo seem to belong to one of two sides, the first being that he is a drug lord, a killer, and a paranoid menace to society – that he is a terrible person who never spends two nights in the same bed and has fathered roughly a dozen children. The second side describes him as a Robin Hood-like character, who uses his immense wealth to look after the people of Sinaloa. He may be richer than God, but he earned that money the only way he could, and now he uses that money to look after his wife and twin daughters.
The first is a picture painted by the Mexican and American governments and the second belongs to the people of Mexico with whom El Chapo holds an almost mythical, rock star-type status. Who is a hero and who is a villain depends largely on perspective. In some cases, it might be the ruthless drug lord who becomes the hero and the struggling government who becomes the villain. Who you cheer for is subjective to who protects your family and puts food on the table.
A U.S Law Enforcement official once gave New Yorker journalist, Patrick Radden Keefe, the rather infamous quote: “He’s an illiterate son of a bitch, but he’s a street-smart motherfu**er.” This quote reflects various law enforcement and government attitudes towards El Chapo Guzmán. In the United States El Chapo is facing federal charges in Arizona, California, Texas, Illinois, New York, Florida, and New Hampshire, on top of the ten legal cases Guzmán is facing in Mexico. According to the US Treachery Department, El Chapo is the most powerful drug trafficker in the world and is said to control roughly 40 – 60 percent of Mexico’s drug trade.
As you watch the 17 minute video interview from El Chapo to Sean Penn, it can be difficult to see what the Mexican attorney general’s office meant, in a profile they released, when they described him as “egocentric, narcissistic, shrewd, persistent, tenacious, meticulous, discriminating, and secretive”. In his video interview, El Chapo appears small, unassuming, careful, and soft spoken. But that might very well be a part of the charm and not an actual representation of El Chapo’s key characteristics.
Guzmán himself argues that he is not responsible for how many drugs there are in the world. He says that drugs have always existed, and the day he ceases to exist the drugs are going to continue to be sold – he is merely the current mediator for the drugs. When El Chapo is asked if he is a violent person, he answers with a prompt and seemingly sincere “No, Señor”. The notorious kingpin argues that he does not go looking for trouble, but if necessary, he will defend himself. That is the statement of a man who also claimed in 2014 to have killed between 2000-3000 people.
El Chapo is from the poor and rural area of Mexico called Sinaloa. When he escaped from prison in 2015 for the second time, it caused quite in uproar in his home area of Sinaloa. Later, people would be spotted in the streets wearing t-shirts with pictures of El Chapo on them and holding signs saying “El Chapo is more of a President than Peña Nieto.” Of course, this references to Enrique Peña Nieto current President of Mexico, whose term is up on November 30th, 2018.
In Sinaloa there is a folk saint known as Jesús Malverde. He is typically worshipped by poor people, farmers, fishers, and also, drug traffickers. Allegedly, the saint is based on a local man who lived from 1870 to 1909. He stole from the rich and gave to the poor. His Robin Hood-like persona seemed to transfer into El Chapo, who doesn’t need to steal from the rich, since he is one of them, but is rumored to be very generous all the same.
It is a common consensus that a good drug lord does a lot more good for the community than the government ever could. Inhabitants of Sinaloa claims that El Chapo procured work for farmers and secured a profitable livelihood. Likewise, that he kept their state relatively calm. Some citizens argue that there are much worse drug lords out there than El Chapo, and it is El Chapo’s influence that keeps them away. Despite these claims from the locals, Sinaloa did rank second on the government’s measure of intentional homicides per capita in 2014.
El Chapo holds almost mythical, deity level notoriety in Mexico. Whereas the Mexican government is looked upon with the same disdain you might spare a rat in a dumpster. The distrust of the Mexican government runs deep and the Mexican people seem a lot readier to trust the influence of people like El Chapo Guzmán rather than Peña Nieto. According to some Mexicans, El Chapo is the government and he never needed to escape from prison – he could have walked out the front gates any time he wanted.
El Chapo Guzmán is currently incarcerated in New York awaiting to be sentenced on various charges. The Sinaloa Cartel continues its drug distribution without El Chapo. Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada is rumored to have stepped up and taken over leadership of the Sinaloa Cartel. The world undoubtedly seems to keep spinning while El Chapo is out of the game. Or is the Mexican Houdini merely waiting to pull yet another disappearing act?
Many questions go unanswered on El Chapo Guzmán, and in reality, very little is known about him. Whether he is a hero or a villain is entirely circumstantial, and depends on who you might ask. Perspective is key.
Lærke Vinther Christiansen