CULIACAN, Mexico (Reuters) - In the days since Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman turned a grubby corner of his prison cell into an escape hatch to freedom, the notorious drug lord’s legend has soared to new heights in the gang-infested landscape of his home turf.
Hailed by supporters in the northwestern state of Sinaloa as a man with more heft than the president, Guzman’s audacious breakout from a maximum security prison on Saturday night through a tunnel that surfaced in his shower has all but guaranteed his immortality in global crime-lore.
News that Sinaloa’s most famous son had cut short his prison stay before the government had even announced it spread on social media in Sinaloa’s state capital Culiacan, locals said.
“Everybody wanted him to be out of prison. He helped a lot of people,” said Jaime Carrillo, 39, drummer of BuKnas de Culiacan, a U.S.-Mexican band that plays narcocorridos, a style of music that venerates the gore and glamour of the drug lords.
“I think he’s more powerful than the president,” said Carrillo, who was born just a few miles away from Guzman. “I think he has more command inside the government.”
As thousands of soldiers sweep the country in search of Guzman, military trucks patrol the humid streets of Culiacan, a city dotted with shrines to slain drug traffickers, altars to organized crime and awash with dollars laundered from the trade.
A local hero to mountain villagers living off his largesse, and murderous criminal to his critics, the 58-year-old Guzman is expected to now retake the controls of his Sinaloa Cartel with ease, regardless of where he is.
“He’s talented, daring and bold,” said one “dismayed” senior official from President Enrique Pena Nieto’s ruling party familiar with the capo’s career.
“I’m sure the gringos will end up making a film about it,” he added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Guzman has long used bribes to neutralize police and politicians as he grew his business to make it the dominant cartel in Mexican drug trafficking. That skill has also proved invaluable in engineering two jail breaks.
The subject of countless songs extolling the “narco” life that raised poor children from the sierra like himself to the status of criminal masterminds, Guzman has profited from a widespread distrust of politicians in Mexico.
“He’s better than the politicians, he provides jobs without stealing our taxes,” said Claudia Sanchez, 45, a shop worker. “He’d better than the whole corrupt bunch that put him in jail, but then you see he’s smarter than them, and escaped.”
Culiacan locals are reluctant to speak out against Guzman, hinting at the threat of violence lurking beneath the surface.
Never courting the limelight like his Colombian counterpart Pablo Escobar, Guzman stealthily built up his business empire by corrupting officials and making pragmatic alliances with some competitors, even as he waged war on others.
Doing so, he has outlived many contemporaries.
Giant, air-conditioned mausoleums of departed drug lords jut towards the heavens in Culiacan’s sprawling Jardines de Humaya cemetery. Beneath bright cupolas, gaudy icons of Jesus compete for space with photos of stetson-wearing narcos.
Among the dizzying tombs is that of Arturo Beltran Leyva, a former ally turned bitter rival of Guzman who was gunned down during one of the bloodiest phases of a drug war that has killed well over 100,000 people in eight years.
Living capos may be invoked in religious ceremonies at the shrine of Jesus Malverde, a semi-mythological bandit venerated as the patron saint of narcos and a friend of Sinaloa’s poor.
Guzman is a modern proxy for Malverde.
“I’ve heard tell he’s a lovely person, who helps the people a lot,” said Teresa de Jesus Sanchez, 64, tending the Malverde altar in Culiacan. “If he came to me and said, ‘I’m El Chapo’ why would I be afraid of him? I would give him a hug and a kiss.”
Praying for the fugitive drug lord’s continued good fortune, locals said that visits to the shrine, including families with children, has spiked appreciably since his escape.
Such sentiments explain why, despite being blamed by U.S. and Mexican authorities for thousands of murders, Guzman may have little to fear even if he decides to resume management of the Sinaloa Cartel on home soil.
Virtually all of the Sinaloa experts consulted by Reuters agreed that the business had been carefully overseen by his allies during his absence, and with his input.
“When Chapo Guzman was in prison, there was no change in the set-up of the Sinaloa Cartel,” said Anabel Hernandez, author of Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers.
Only now, his fame has grown more potent, she added.
“Tragically, because of what happened last Saturday, El Chapo Guzman will forever be a person looked up to by many sectors in Mexico,” she added.
Additional reporting by Max de Haldevang, Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein and Dave Graham; Editing by Kieran Murray