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Ruthless Mexican Drug Trafficker Was A Robin Hood In Home State

Drug cartel leader Joaquin Guzman, known as "El Chapo," was formally charged on Monday with violating drug trafficking laws in Mexico. While officials celebrate his capture, many in his home state of Sinaloa — who viewed the kingpin as a helper of the poor and a keeper of the peace — are not as pleased.

Guzman got his nickname "Chapo" because of his short, stocky stature — he's only 5 foot 6. But given the fact that he escaped from a maximum security prison some 13 years ago, has since evaded capture despite a worldwide dragnet, and ran one the most far-reaching drug organizations in the world with annual profits in the billions of dollars, many in Sinaloa say he's larger than life.

At a cemetery just outside Culiacan, Sinaloa's capital, four 20-somethings are drinking scotch and singing narcocorridos, or ballads heralding the life of drug traffickers.

Christina, a 21-year-old psychology student, says the narco-culture runs through their veins; it's part of life. The four friends are sitting around the grave of Christina's boyfriend, who was killed last year in a shootout.

Enormous, ornate mausoleums — some of which are two-stories tall with air conditioning — fill the cemetery, which is known to be the final resting spot of drug traffickers. A few plots down from the partying friends, a banner hangs over the grave of a recently deceased man. He's pictured by a serene lake, clutching an AK-47.

Christina says no one here is happy about Guzman's arrest. Because of Guzman, she says, everything is under control — people don't steal, kidnap or extort here. And the partiers say he helped the poor, paved roads, gave people jobs — the list of good deeds goes on.

Now thought to be 55 years old, Guzman grew up poor in the Sierra Madre of Sinaloa. He is said to have dropped out of school in the third grade and took up the drug trade as a teenager. He rose quickly through the ranks, and by the 1990s had developed an international trade that favored stuffing cocaine in 747s and marijuana in tunnels brazenly constructed under the U.S.-Mexico border.

Despite his Robin Hood reputation, Guzman was a vicious killer who's responsible for much of the country's deadly drug war, says George Grayson, an expert on Mexico's traffickers.

"Ruthless in his own right and his efforts to seem like a good guy were sheer public relations at which he was extremely talented," Grayson says.

What will happen to the Sinaloa cartel without its leader is the pressing question here and has many worried about a violent fight for power.

At a Flag Day celebration in Culiacan's city hall on Monday, all public officials attending were asked just that.

Sinaloa Gov. Mario Lopez Valdez says no one knows, but with so much money at stake, he says there undoubtedly will be a fight for control here. Valdez estimates the cartel took in $500 million a year — experts put it much higher at $3 billion.

At a large shrine downtown to Jesus Malverde, the saint of drug traffickers, worshiper Pedro Alvarez says it's too bad Guzman was captured, because he kept the peace. And thanks to Chapo, Alvarez says, his small town in a nearby state is much safer and richer, too.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.