BADIRAGUATO, Mexico — The voice was unmistakably his. Mexico's most wanted criminal was back in his rural stronghold in the western Sierra Madre.
But when 200 army paratroopers swooped in by helicopter minutes after the voice registered on a wiretap, he was gone. The soldiers found only a few ranch hands and the drug baron's Hummer and Dodge Ram pickup, which they blew up before retreating in frustration.
The November raid was the closest a government search party has come to Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman since he slipped out of a maximum-security prison in a laundry cart 4 1/2 years ago.
On the lam with a satellite phone, laptop computer and AK-47 rifle, the 50-year-old fugitive has rebuilt his empire and started a war with rival smugglers that has claimed more than 600 lives this year. Although Mexican officials call him one of the most prolific, innovative and ruthless traffickers they have ever faced, his disappearing acts have made him a folk hero.
The 5-foot-6 kingpin's nickname means "Shorty," but there is nothing diminutive about the shadow he casts on Mexico and the United States. The story of his mercurial career and bid for underworld supremacy offers a glimpse of a violent industry that bedevils both countries.
Although U.S. officials have repeatedly praised Mexico's anti-drug efforts under President Vicente Fox, including the arrest of 18 cartel leaders over the last four years, Guzman's elusiveness is an embarrassing symbol of the country's failure to stop the bloodshed or slow the flow of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and amphetamines into the United States.
"He is the last of the Mohicans," said Jorge Chabat, a Mexico City expert on law enforcement issues. "All the other big cartels have been decapitated. That is why they want him so badly."
U.S. authorities also want to get Shorty, who was indicted in 1995 in San Diego on charges of money laundering and conspiracy to import tons of cocaine. In December, federal authorities offered a $5-million reward for tips leading to his capture and are sharing intelligence with Mexican authorities.
Since then, the dragnet has tightened with the arrests in Mexico of Guzman's 21-year-old son (nicknamed "Little Shorty"), a brother, two nephews and a niece, all accused of aiding his drug business. Nine houses and six vehicles belonging to him and his associates were seized in June.
Rival drug traffickers are after him too. They killed another of his brothers and two of his associates in a Mexican prison last year.
But so far the heat on Guzman has merely enhanced his mystique as an untouchable outlaw constantly on the move, escorted by 10 armed bodyguards and apparently shielded across Mexico by a web of corrupt officials to whom he once boasted paying a total of $5 million per month.
By sport utility vehicle and private aircraft, he shuttles among safe houses in 16 of Mexico's 31 states, according to an army intelligence report. "He is practically a guerrilla of drugs," said Jose Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, Mexico's deputy attorney general for organized crime.
A ballad recorded by Los Buitres (The Vultures) and sold on CDs across the country is part of a popular narco-culture that glorifies Guzman's life on the run and the exploits of other kingpins.
He sleeps at times in homes,
at times in tents
Radio and rifle at the foot
of the bed
Sometimes his roof is a cave.
Guzman does seem to be everywhere.
"Once, on a single day, I got tips of sightings in Nuevo Laredo, Mochicahui, Badiraguato, Mexicali, Caborca and Agua Prieta," said J. Jesus Blancornelas, a Tijuana newspaper editor who is knowledgeable about the drug cartels. "Everyone thinks they are seeing him."
The difficulty of arresting Guzman becomes starkly evident in the isolated, mountainous terrain of Badiraguato, the 2,000-square-mile municipality in Sinaloa state where he was born.
His ranch at La Tuna is a five-hour drive on bad roads from Badiraguato's well-kept urban center. Between the ranch and the outside world are several thousand families who have lived for generations on the proceeds of marijuana and poppy cultivation. They complain of government neglect and defiantly replant their illegal crops as fast as the army destroys them.
"Some of them have benefited from his generosity," said Santiago Vasconcelos, the federal prosecutor. "They see him as a hero. They cover for him, and when any stranger comes into the communities, they warn him."
"It's similar to trying to find Osama bin Laden," a U.S. law enforcement official said.
Badiraguato's 29-man police force does nothing to stop his security detail from setting up checkpoints, people in the area say. "When the cops pass El Chapo on the road, they call him Boss," a resident said.
But most people here are reluctant to utter Guzman's name, much less acknowledge his comings and goings. "We do not know in the slightest whether or not this famous Chapo even exists," said Jose Luis Morales, the municipality's No. 2 official.