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Davis, California

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Latin Americanisms: El Chapo

Thirteen years have gone by since Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman managed to escape from a maximum security prison in the city of Guadalajara — rumor holds of a daytime escape in the smelly depths of a laundry cart with the aid of prison employees. In that time we have seen a troubling, but favorable, détente among the Cartels and the federal government eschewed in favor of all-out violence and a near constant state of war in several regions of Mexico.

El Chapo (as he is known for his lowness in height — equivalent to “Shorty” in English), one of the primary actors in this Narco-Tragedy, met his fate this past Saturday as he was captured overnight in a hotel in the beach city of Mazatlán, in his home state of Sinaloa. Having been one of the world’s most wanted criminals, he rose to near legendary status as the head of the Sinaloa Cartel — one of the most profitable and equally ruthless drug operations the world had ever seen.

He had been on the run (I use this term loosely since staying in multi-million dollar mansions and cavorting with beauty queens isn’t exactly my idea of “on the run”) since his escape from prison in 2001.

The next 13 years were dominated by the nagging suspicions and conspiracy theories that such true crime tales provide. The dominant belief being that anyone with that kind of money could be hiding in any country, in any place on the face of the earth. Rumors circulated of a fortified compound in the Netherlands; DEA cases were financed almost exclusively on the belief that they would yield El Chapo’s hideaways in the United States. As it turned out, he was apprehended some 140 miles from the city of Culiacan, the headquarters of the Sinaloa drug cartel.

El Chapo gained, amid his growing infamy, a reverential following in certain circles of Mexican society. Among the poorest and those most attached to his humble rags to criminal riches story, a corrupted Robin Hood narrative took hold. It coupled itself with the merciless Tony Montana persona that he had taken on as the leader of the feared Sinaloa Cartel. Stories abound of his routine “generosity,” such as the ones wherein he picked up entire restaurant tabs as diners looked on at the small man who commanded such power. The cynic — a figure so ever-present in Mexican society, out of necessity — would see this for what it was: a de facto bribe among the many he doled out in his life — “I’ll pay for your dinner, as long as you acknowledge I was never here.”

Growing up, Guzman experienced firsthand the dispiriting poverty that millions of other Mexicans face in their lives. Selling oranges just to scrape enough money together for a family meal drove him to seek a way out of that life. But what might have been the story of a Sinaloan immigrant searching for a better life in the U.S. (among the millions of others) took a criminal turn and became the story of El Chapo. This only magnifies the Robin Hood appeal that some hold of him when you account for the fact that at his height Forbes magazine ranked him as No. 701 on their list of richest billionaires among a star studded cast of tech CEOs and energy tycoons.

Mexico is a country deeply bound to a historical pessimism that mediates most everything that happens in the country. The most wanted man in Mexico finally being re-captured will not serve to change that. If anything it has heightened the prominent status of the handmaiden to such a pessimism: a national skepticism. The fact that El Chapo’s capture has come about only a few days prior to a visit from President Obama is not something to be ignored in the eyes of many. As is the popular belief that his years as a successful fugitive from the law — eluding “close encounters” from federal forces dozens of times over the years — can’t be chalked up entirely to his cunning hide-and-seek technique. There’s more to this story than meets the media eye. That much is for certain.

If you hold any interest in the intersection of society and art as it relates to the drug trade, JORGE JUAREZ at jnjuarez@ucdavis.edu will be writing on the fascinating world of Narcocorridos in his next column. 


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