MEXICO CITY -- From his naming on the Forbes magazine list of the world’s richest billionaires, to his frequent supposed sightings and magical escapes, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman has been a larger-than-life drug lord who reached mythical proportions in Mexican “narco” folklore.
He rose from a simple low-level trafficker from Sinaloa, the cradle of Mexico’s opium and marijuana trade, to become the nation’s most powerful and elusive fugitive.
For Mexicans, the capture of Guzman, reported Saturday to have occurred in a joint operation by Mexican marines and U.S. federal agents in the Sinaloan coastal city of Mazatlan, is somewhat akin to Colombia’s killing of Pablo Escobar -- or even the U.S. elimination of Osama bin Laden.
His luxurious life on the run was the stuff of legend. More than once, he was reported to have entered a fancy restaurant, ordered cellphones confiscated, dined lavishly, then picked up everyone’s check.
So apparently untouchable was he, that his young beauty queen wife traveled uncontested by authorities to Los Angeles to give birth to twin girls in 2011.
In recent years, Guzman extended the operations of his Sinaloa cartel to an estimated 50 countries across Latin America, Africa and Europe, even hooking up with one of the most notorious Italian mafias, the ‘Ndrangheta.
“This gives us the dimension of who was 'El Chapo' Guzman,” said Jose Reveles, author of several books on Mexican drug-trafficking.
Given Guzman’s folk hero status, the constant rumors of his presence across borders and time zones, and his ability to bribe local officials to look the other way, it was difficult for some officials not to accord Guzman a grudging respect.
Guillermo Valdes, the former head of Mexico’s National Security and Investigation Center who authored a book on his country’s drug trade, called Guzman an exceptional leader -- a “business genius.”
“I think that 'El Chapo' is a person with a leadership capacity and a strategic vision that the other narcos don’t have, and they recognize that,” Valdes told the Spanish newspaper El Pais. “He’s a very intelligent person, with a great capacity for listening. With a great ability to seduce people, as well as a large imagination ... and creativity.”
The U.S. government offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his arrest. The Mexican government was offering a reward of 30 million pesos, or about $2.3 million. There were many reported near misses, including a supposed appearance in Baja California in 2012, days before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in the region.
There is some disagreement over Guzman’s actual birth date, but the U.S. State Department puts it at Dec. 25, 1954, making him 59 years old. Interpol lists him as 56. The U.S. government lists him at 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds, but others say he is about 5-foot-6, hence his nickname "El Chapo," or "Shorty."
To many Mexicans, guessing Guzman’s whereabouts had become a popular and macabre parlor game -- a kind of cartel “Where’s Waldo?” Mexican security officials, meanwhile, conducted numerous searches in vain, contributing to the mystique of bad man as wily trickster--and burnishing his reputation as a folk antihero.
A popular narcocorrido, or song glorifying the drug world, by a Mexican group called Los Buitres (The Vultures), captured the life that so many here assumed Guzman was living and the legend that had grown up around him:
He sleeps at times in homes
…at times in tents
Radio and rifle at the foot
of the bed
Sometimes his roof is a cave.