'El Chapo' Took Care of His Own, Except in His Birthplace

The house in La Tuna that “El Chapo” built for his mother Photograph by Mario Gerardo Crespo

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman rose from this dirt-poor farming village in Mexico to become one of the wealthiest drug barons on the planet. From the looks of the place, he hasn’t given back as much to his neighbors as his Robin Hood legend would suggest.

La Tuna, Mexico
Photograph by Mario Gerardo Crespo
The roads leading to the village of La Tuna are treacherous. It’s a three-hour drive from the capital of Sinaloa state, Culiacán, on a highway littered with boulders broken loose from the jagged Sierra Madre mountains. The asphalt abruptly ends, and a rocky path passable only by four-wheel drive winds for another hour along steep hills and unmarked precipices. Teens on ATVs, some toting AK-47s, whiz by to report the approach of a journalist on their walkie-talkies.

Mexican marines captured the world’s most-wanted drug lord on Feb. 22 at a beach-front condo in the popular tourist destination of Mazatlán. Before then, the 5-foot, 6-inch narco nicknamed “Shorty” had been hiding in plain sight among seven homes linked by tunnels in Culiacán, the home base of his Sinaloa Cartel.

Last week, close to 2,000 residents marched in Culiacán to demand his release. Teens held up signs saying “Chapo for President” and “Have a Child With Me, Chapo.”

But in the hills of La Tuna, where Chapo love runs just as deep, conditions don’t seem to measure up to his mythic stature as a handout hero. Although one could argue that it behooved Guzman to keep his village and nearby enclaves inaccessible by road, the surrounding municipality of Badiraguato is the second-poorest (pdf) among 18 in Sinaloa, with 21 percent living in extreme poverty.

A sign at the entrance of La Tuna warns “Hold your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking falsehood”
Photograph by Mario Gerardo Crespo
All 26 children in the elementary school of La Tuna are on the federal antipoverty program known as Oportunidades, says their teacher, Adriana Espinoza. The high school at the bottom of a lush green and purple valley doesn’t have electricity. Internet and phone service can be accessed only at the top of hills, far from the one-room primary school whose computer sits abandoned.

Guzman’s second cousin, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, explains that even if some in the village plant marijuana fields because of El Chapo, they’re still tied to an unforgiving land. Just as with legal crops, profits for the farmers are far less robust than for others further up the distribution chain. And times have grown tougher as the army cracks down.

In this village of 300 people, a 50-year-old, gray-haired bricklayer lives with his mother. Last week he was piling cinderblocks to build a barrier around a basketball court, which had no nets, to keep water off the field. He says he didn’t join Guzman’s trade because his eldest son made him promise to stay clean. He’d gone to school in the capital only to return and see Guzman, the boy who’d dropped out of the third grade to work his parents’ corn and bean fields, rise to power. The trafficker’s charisma had propelled him further than any education ever could. “He was a good talker,” his second cousin says.

The bricklayer gazed across the valley with admiration at the gated compound El Chapo built for his mother, Consuelo Loera. The shingles on her rooftop could have been constructed only with workers and material from Culiacán, he says. Loera’s colonnaded, two-home complex contrasts with the corrugated-metal-roof huts elsewhere in La Tuna.

As Espinoza, the teacher, put it: “People here lack many things. We’ve done what we can with the sweat from our foreheads and what we get from the government.” From El Chapo, not so much.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.