Bitter Sinaloa residents lament likely life sentence for 'El Chapo'

Culiacán (Mexico) (AFP) –


As Sinaloa's most notorious son Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman faces sentencing in the United States, residents of the Mexican state sounded a bitter chorus at the prospect of the capo -- feared and revered here in equal measure -- spending his life behind bars.

They point to the fact that since the arrest of Guzman -- the now-former leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, which was founded in the 1980s -- neither violence nor drug-trafficking have abated.

Moreover, in Sinaloa, it is widely believed that he and his fugitive partner Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada paved roads, built schools and churches and were the region's benefactors.

And despite testimony to the contrary presented at Guzman's trial in New York, many still believe the numerous murders and kidnappings he is accused of had nothing to do with him.

"It's not going to help to leave him incarcerated there," said Angel Ladrillero. "Since they took him, this damn massacre hasn't stopped, it's a complete mess."

Ladrillero was visiting the shrine dedicated to Jesus Malverde, the so-called "narco saint" -- a folk hero who, according to legend, stole from the rich to give to the poor in early 20th-century Sinaloa.

The shrine, in the state capital Culiacan, is full of photographs and messages of thanks, while next to a bust of Malverde stands a figurine of Guzman, his head held high, wearing a pink shirt, blue trousers and holding an assault rifle.

"On top of that it's not fair that they want him to die in jail. He helped a lot of people, they should free him," added 44-year-old mason Ladrillero, after offering thanks to Malverde for his recovery from a facial blood clot.

- Extravagant mausoleums -

"The verdict is unfair, they're always going to say (bad) things but he always helped here in Culiacan," said Milagro Quiroz, a 32-year-old primary school teacher after paying her respects to the Malverde bust in thanks for her father's safe return from a journey.

"Here, there's always violence everywhere," Quiroz said.

Despite the claims he paid for public works, the evidence that Guzman lived a lifestyle far removed from the surrounding poverty is clear to see -- and not just because the US believes he still has $12 billion stashed away somewhere.

Close to an area of simple houses made from corrugated metal sheets and wooden boards lies the Humaya Gardens cemetery, famous for its extravagant mausoleums up to three stories high, with air conditioning and bullet-proof windows, and drug-traffickers buried inside.

The tomb of Guzman's brother Ernesto has two small stone VW Beetles at the corners of the colonnaded porch at its entrance.

- '20 El Chapos' -

For journalist Miguel Angel Vega, a specialist in drug-trafficking for local weekly newspaper Riodoce, the dramatic capture and 2017 extradition of El Chapo, who twice previously escaped from prison, has changed nothing.

"The problem hasn't gone away. There are 20 El Chapos in Culiacan, and there's one over there" in a US jail, he said.

"But since he's the cherry on the cake... the one who the media says is responsible for all this, who's responsible for youngsters taking drugs in the United States," his trial has been exploited by the media, said Vega.

"The Sinaloa cartel isn't El Chapo, it isn't El Mayo, it's a group of at least 20 leaders."

Guzman's legend was fueled by accounts of his exploits, while his fame rose when Forbes listed him in 2011 as one of the world's richest men, with a personal fortune of more than $11 billion.

Two years later, the US Drug Enforcement Administration and the Chicago Crime Commission named him public enemy number one.

Guzman's legend is still growing.

One man who was sitting by the Culiacan cathedral claimed that the person held in a high-security prison in Lower Manhattan is not El Chapo.

"He's got a lot of money, he can do what he wants, including buying one or two doubles," he said.

"The one they have over there isn't him, the real Joaquin Guzman must be walking around here somewhere."