Almost within moments after the capture of Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman Loera—leader of the infamous Sinaloa cartel, which is responsible for roughly a quarter of all drugs found in the United States—many took to Twitter to demand that he’d be freed. In fact, for most of Saturday, the hashtag #FreeElChapo trended on the social media platform.
Image courtesy of Andrea Lopez
At first glance, it seems bizarre that the “Mexican Osama Bin Laden” would demand such respect and adulation. He is, after all, one of the key figures behind the cartel-related violence that has killed more than 60,000 people in Mexico over the last decade.
But not everyone sees him as a villain with the blood of many on his hands. Quite the contrary, for many, he’s seen as a hero.
To understand this sentiment, consider the fact that out of the 120.8 million people who call Mexico home, over half—52.3 percent, or roughly over 63 million—live at or below the country’s poverty line. Couple that with a declining confidence in government (only one third of all Mexicans trust elected officials), and you create a window for the population to turn elsewhere for role models.
That’s where El Chapo comes into the fold. Like the majority of his countrymen, Joaquin Guzman Loera grew up poor, selling oranges to feed himself. He eventually entered the drug trade at the age of fifteen and steadily moved up the narco-corporate ladder until he took charge of the Sinaloa Cartel in the early 1990s. A veritable rags to riches story and, if this had happened in America and in a field other than drug trafficking, El Chapo would have been hailed as the poster boy for bootstrapping oneself into success.
But it’s not just that the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel beat the odds and found success. If the many apocryphal stories told about him are to be believed, El Chapo is also a man of the people. There are countless unverified reports of his security detail walking into a restaurant and ordering the crowd to stay where they are and to hand over their cell phones. Once this is done, Joaquin Guzman is said to walk in, amiably greeting everyone at the restaurant, and then sitting down to have lunch in a private room. When finished, he departs via the back door and the rest of the diners are informed that their tabs have been paid for.
The most obvious example of widespread adulation for Joaquin Guzman are the boundless narcocorridos written about him. For the unfamiliar, a corrido is a narrative ballad that became extremely popular during the Mexican Revolution. Because these songs have their roots in peasant and oppressed class, they almost always painted revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa as the heroes. Now, nearly a century later, Guzman and his ilk are receiving the same treatment. A cursory YouTube search for “chapo corrido” yields more than 119,000 results. And in case you were wondering, yes, there are already corridos chronicling his arrest, with the most popular song already having more than 100,000 views as of this writing.
This musical hero worship doesn’t just happen in Mexico. Stateside, El Chapo Guzman has developed a following thanks to the aforementioned corridos, and because of rappers like Gucci Mane, who penned a song glorifying the cartel boss entitled "El Chapo".
In addition to Gucci Mane, Chicago area rappers like Chief Keef and Fredo Santana namecheck Guzman in their songs. This makes sense given that in February 2013 local law enforcement officials named Guzman “Public Enemy No. 1”—a tag last used on Al Capone—for his control of the city’s drug trade.
The perpetuation of El Chapo’s myth isn’t just restricted to music. In January 2014,Univision, one of Fusion’s parent companies, announced that it had purchased the rights to El Varon De La Droga (roughly translates to The Drug Baron), a 60-episode dramatized series—or narconovela—based on the life of El Chapo Guzman.
Univision’s decision to pick up the series isn’t too surprising and follows a larger trend of bringing the life and times of narco bosses to the small screen. In the past five years alone, both Univision and rival Telemundo have found success with narconovelas like El Cartel De Los Sapos, La Reina Del Sur and El Señor De Los Cielos.
El Chapo Guzman now sits behind bars and likely faces an extradition to the United States. He will most likely spend the rest of his natural life incarcerated. This, however, won’t do away with the myth of El Chapo. If anything, it’ll only grow.
Fidel Martinez is an editor at Fusion.net. He's also a Texas native and a lifelong El Tri fan.