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MEXICO UNDER SIEGE

'El Chapo' has left the building

The now-mythical drug trafficking fugitive Joaquin Guzman racks up more sightings than Elvis.

November 03, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson | Wilkinson is a Times staff writer.

Culiacan, Mexico — He appears in a restaurant, picks up everyone's tab, then vanishes with his many guards. He stars in his wedding, government officials among the guests. He is captured, then released. Twice.

Or maybe not.

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, Mexico's most-wanted drug-trafficking fugitive, chalks up more sightings than Elvis. He is everywhere, and nowhere, a long-sought criminal always a step ahead of the law, yet always in sight or mind.

A mythology has developed around Guzman, the commander of Mexico's most powerful narcotics network, the so-called Sinaloa cartel, named for the Pacific coast state that is the historic cradle of Mexican drug trafficking. Narcocorridos, popular songs about traffickers, lionize him.

Whether any of his reported exploits -- the brash strutting, the narrow escapes -- actually happened is almost beside the point. They add to the mystique around a man who, though reviled and feared by most Mexicans, is admired by the loyal cadres dedicated to tending, processing and transporting marijuana, opium poppy or cocaine.

U.S. authorities have placed a $5-million bounty on Guzman's head, accusing him of smuggling tons of cocaine over the border.

And yet El Chapo is still at large.

In the old style of swaggering kingpins, Guzman cultivated support in his native Sinaloa by handing out money and favors to hardworking villagers. There is little doubt that those villagers now help hide him and alert him to the presence of soldiers or police.

"He is very agile and, of the kingpins, is the one who moves around the least," said Ismael Bojorquez, editor of the newspaper Riodoce in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa. "He has a natural space for operating." That space is the so-called Golden Triangle: a desolate patch between Culiacan and neighboring Durango and Chihuahua states.

A more fundamental explanation for Chapo's elusiveness, however, could be that few have the political will to catch him.

"He cannot survive without the support of the state, its institutions, police or army," Bojorquez said. "That's obvious."

A reported sighting

Riodoce published an account of one of the legendary Guzman sightings at a restaurant in Culiacan late last year: A group of men entered Las Palmas, a lime-green eatery with an ersatz tile roof on a busy street. They cased the joint, then ordered everyone in the crowded room to remain seated and to hand over their cellphones. Guzman made his entrance. He went from table to table, greeting and shaking hands with the diners before retiring to a private room, where he ate his favorite meal of steak and other red-meat dishes. He departed with less of a flair, discreetly exiting through a back door. Customers discovered their bills had been paid.

Later, the restaurant's proprietors denied that Guzman had been there.

A story that surfaced this year in Ciudad Juarez, a city in Chihuahua across the U.S. border from El Paso, had the same elements: the cellphones confiscated, the tabs paid.

Guzman's appearance at the red-stucco Aroma Restaurant in Juarez was especially provocative because the city is headquarters to a rival drug organization that Guzman has been trying to supplant.

A short time later, even as the Aroma's managers insisted that Guzman was never there, the restaurant was torched.

Guzman, 51, has close-set eyes and stands about 5 feet 6, earning him his widely known nickname "El Chapo," Spanish for "Shorty."

Last year, he reportedly married his third wife, Emma, on the summer day she turned 18. Local officials attended the wedding, the stories go, and a local military commander set up security for the event in an isolated mountain village deep in the Triangle.

There have been other reports widely circulated in Mexico that Guzman was detained by police twice in the last few years but then allowed to slip away. A senior government official said that on another occasion troops reached his hide-out minutes after he apparently fled; food on a table was still hot.

Building an empire

Guzman got his start as a lieutenant and air logistics manager for Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the spiritual godfather of today's cartels. After Felix Gallardo's arrest in 1989, Guzman inherited some of Felix Gallardo's territory and began building an empire that is probably the country's largest cocaine smuggling operation.

A significant part of the violence that is jolting Mexico involves Guzman's henchmen in turf wars with other criminal networks. The most far-reaching internal feud came when Guzman's long-trusted aides, the Beltran Leyva brothers, broke with him early this year. In May, gunmen killed Guzman's son, Edgar, and war between the rivals escalated.

U.S. officials insist that Guzman's network of support will eventually fail as President Felipe Calderon presses a 2-year-long offensive against the drug networks that have seized control of parts of the country, and as those organizations duke it out among themselves for diminishing territory.

In fact, one senior U.S. law enforcement official said, Guzman may fear death at the hands of rival dealers more than at the hands of authorities.

"The narcos are far less forgiving than some police," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity for his safety. "There is not an occasion where a major trafficker doesn't try to bribe his way out of jail."

Bribery has worked for Guzman. He was captured in Guatemala in 1993 and transferred to a maximum security prison in Mexico, where he proceeded to regularly receive lovers and direct his drug business from behind prison walls. Until he got tired of the life. Eight years after his incarceration, he paid guards to smuggle him out of the prison in a laundry truck.

--

wilkinson@latimes.com

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