The Untold Story of El Chapo

Following excerpts from a stunning investigation of the life and legend of Mexican kingpin Joaquín Archivaldo “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, building on Noah Hurowitz’s revelatory coverage for Rolling Stone of El Chapo’s federal drug-trafficking trial.

by Noah Hurowitz

The Sierra Madre Occidental range sweeps down from the Rocky Mountains, across the Arizona border, and south through the states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Durango, forming the spine of northwestern Mexico. Little is known of the first inhabitants of the mountains, but thanks to archeological clues left behind in the form of pottery and subterranean pit houses, we can pick up the trail around 300 CE of scattered communities that grew into a society calling itself the Rarámuri, “those with light feet,” or “foot runners.” The Rarámuri, now known as Tarahumara, the Spanish corruption of their name, originally settled the plains to the east of the Sierra Madre, where they developed a culture of ritual endurance races, twenty-four-hour ultra-marathons run barefoot or in huarache sandals, a tradition that persists to this day. As Spanish missionaries first began arriving in the mountains in the 1500s, bringing with them misery and death in the form of smallpox and imperial cruelty, the Tarahumara rose up in successive revolts, moving deeper and deeper into the Sierra and bestowing upon the area a reputation as an untamable wilderness. But it wasn’t enough to keep outsiders from coming in. Home to rich veins of silver, gold, copper, and other precious minerals, the mountains drew prospectors and mining companies for centuries, and many of the current inhabitants of the Sierra Madre can trace their presence in Sinaloa to ancestors who arrived as miners and never left. Now many of them make a living from the figurative gold mines of marijuana and opium. It is this, not mining, that has earned this region spanning portions of the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua, and Durango a new name: the Golden Triangle.

The steep peaks and deep valleys were carved over millennia by rivers, which flow west to the ocean, tumbling down in torrents during the rainy season and in trickles—if at all—during the dry season. These waters irrigate the fertile lowland plains of Sinaloa, a long and narrow state against whose northern shores lap the waves of the Gulf of California, and whose southern beaches look out on the vast expanse of the Pacific. About an hour inland, the state capital of Culiacán sits nestled at the foot of the Sierra Madre mountains, which form a striking backdrop on the horizon.

Long a provincial backwater, Culiacán began to see a steady influx of people and money beginning in the 1940s, first as newly built dams made large-scale agriculture possible, and later as a few native Sinaloans began to take their talent for illegal import and export to a global scale. Culiacán now boasts a population of nearly a million people. The city is a magnet for people fleeing the countryside, and at its margins many of these newcomers live in ramshackle huts and often make a living picking through trash heaps. As you get closer to the center, dirt side streets and overgrown vegetation give way to a modern sprawl of glittering shopping malls, luxury sports cars, and late-model pickup trucks racing down broad thoroughfares, before turning into prim middle- and upper-class neighborhoods of two- and three-story homes, all signs of a place where people know how to spend money.

Culiacán is home to a professional baseball team, the Tomateros (named for one of Sinaloa’s most important legal cash crops), and a sprawling botanical garden, nearly twenty-five acres of architecturally designed walkways and palm groves resplendent with thousands of plant species; at the heart of the gardens sits one of artist James Turrell’s gorgeous “skyspace” sculptures, with an interior that changes color as the angle of the sun changes. At sunset, it glows an incandescent pink.

The city is vivisected by three rivers, the Humaya, the Tamazula, and the Culiacán, which meet just west of the downtown, allowing for a verdant malecón, or waterfront boardwalk, where families stroll in the shade and street musicians set up shop. At the center of it all stands a blindingly white, neoclassical cathedral overlooking the main plaza, a shady green oasis named for the revolutionary hero Álvaro Obregón that serves as a focal point for the town’s street life. On the weekends, it is common to find live bands playing in the plaza’s gazebo, while elderly couples dance in pairs.

About a kilometer away from downtown, perched on a wall of green glass tiles atop a long, low-slung shack with a corrugated metal roof, and wedged between a rail yard and a busy thruway, the mustachioed face of the bandit-saint Jesús Malverde scowls down on the traffic funneling in and out of the city. Devotees come here to pay their respects and leave a small offering at the shrine in the hopes that the spirit of Malverde will bring them good fortune in business, rain in a drought, the safe return of lost or stolen property, or safe passage to the United States. Merchants peddle trinkets, votive candles, and rosaries with Malverde’s image, a sign of the fusion of Catholic faith and reverence for the legendary thief who has gained a semi-sacred status as a protector of the poor and, most infamously, as the patron saint of drug traffickers.

The story goes that Jesús Malverde entered the world as Jesús Juárez Mazo around 1870, when Sinaloa and the rest of Mexico were under the thumb of the dictator José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori. Born to a peasant family, Mazo grew up in poverty so severe that his parents starved to death. He swore revenge on the elite and took to the hills for a life dedicated to robbing rich landowners and passing out the loot to poor highlanders throughout the Sierra Madre. Among his wealthy victims, the acts of banditry earned him the nickname Malverde, meaning evil-green, supposedly due to an association between misfortune and the color green. But among the impoverished residents of the Sinaloa highlands, he gained a reputation as a Robin Hood figure at a time in which local and foreign investors were gobbling up low-lying, communal agricultural land to meet U.S. demand for sugarcane and other cash crops, while subsistence farmers in the mountains were losing land to wealthy ranchers.

Malverde is said to have met his end in 1909, at the hands of a gang of enforcers in the employ of the local strongman, after a traitorous friend tipped them off to his hideout. The killers promptly executed Malverde and hung his body from a tree as a warning to any other would-be rebellious peasants, but by extinguishing the threat, Malverde’s killers created a martyr. His sympathizers are said to have given him a proper burial, and covered the grave with stones. Over time, the grave marker grew into a cairn that grew taller and taller as more and more peasants—or campesinos, as they’re known in Spanish—arrived to drop a token of thanks, a blessing on his name that they hoped would give Malverde a reason to look kindly on them and bring them good fortune. There’s scant documentation of Malverde’s life, and historians believe his myth grew out of the combined exploits of two real-life bandits, but the legend of a single saintly highwayman persists. His alleged powers have kept pace with technology, too: on one of my visits to the shrine, a local man helpfully informed a visiting TV crew that their footage would come out black-and-white unless they made a donation to the saint.

Believers hold an annual feast at the shrine on May 3, the supposed date of Malverde’s execution, and a cult of devotion has sprung up around it. The walls of the little chapel are bedecked with placards paid for by families and individuals from Culiacán, other towns in Sinaloa and nearby states, and those from afar, including placards from North Hollywood, California, Las Vegas, Nevada, and beyond. Many of them are emblazoned with favors and thanks—blessings for an easy road ahead, gratitude for a son’s release from prison. Dollars from the United States and Canada, peso notes, even a few bills from China and Japan paper the walls, with messages scrawled on them in Spanish, English, and at least one in Arabic.

At the shrine, which was erected in the 1970s, another visage has begun to appear in recent years: the defiant, mustachioed face of Sinaloa’s most famous native son, Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo. To the extent that people outside Mexico are familiar with Malverde, it’s often because of El Chapo and other drug traffickers like him.

Outside, mixed among the Malverde merch, are items that nod to this connecton. On one visit, I found a small statue of El Chapo—holding an assault rifle, his chin jutting up defiantly beneath his trademark baseball cap—standing on a table out front. Hanging from a rack and available for sale were several hats emblazoned with “CDS” (Cártel de Sinaloa), or “Private Pilot,” or “701”—the rank given to El Chapo by Forbes magazine in 2009 when the magazine included him on its list of billionaires. The number has become a shorthand for El Chapo, and can be seen on T-shirts, hats, and in graffiti scrawled on walls all around Culiacán.

The proliferation of merch bearing El Chapo’s name and image—and its place of honor at the shrine of the bandit-saint—illustrates this particular drug lord’s status in the popular imagination. El Chapo Guzmán is a flesh-and-blood human, unlike the semi-mythical Jesús Malverde, but the legend of El Chapo can appear just as fantastical. With his image as a local boy who hit it big while thumbing his nose at the gringos—an image bolstered by a media eager to simplify the sprawling, unruly, and complex tale of drug trafficking, corruption, violence, and misery into a one-man show—El Chapo has reached mythic proportions not unlike the fabled underdog Malverde. As the placards and foreign currency make clear, both the legend of Malverde and his devotees have spread far and wide. Jesús Malverde candles and statues have made their way north, appearing at alternative-medicine boticas in Latino neighborhoods in the United States, and retailing on Amazon for $27.96. He even showed up at El Chapo’s trial in Brooklyn federal court, where reporters spotted a six-inch statue of Malverde on the defense team’s table.

“It miraculously appeared,” one of El Chapo’s lawyers quipped to a tabloid reporter.

On my first visit to the shrine in April 2019, a young boy noticed my interest in the El Chapo merch on sale, and walked over to strike up a conversation.

“That’s El Señor,” he explained helpfully, as if I or anyone else could somehow be here and not know. “Chapo Guzmán.”

When I told the kid that I had recently spent three months sitting in a courtroom just a few feet away from this fabled native of Sinaloa, his eyes went wide.

“How is he?” he asked, with a genuine concern that I heard frequently from residents of Culiacán and Sinaloa when discussing the trial of El Señor. I told the boy that El Chapo appeared alert and had followed the proceedings closely; I feigned a note of regret when I reported that El Chapo would likely spend the rest of his life in prison.

On another visit to the Malverde shrine, I found a two-man band playing for a small audience. A family sat watching on a bench several feet away, a little girl fanning her baby brother in the sweltering humidity that cloaked the city like a blanket. After pausing to wipe their sweaty faces, the two men, armed with an accordion, a guitar, and a small portable amp, struck up a tune, the rhythmic wheezing of the accordion keeping time as the guitarist banged out the melody…….

Joaquin lo era lo es y será

prófugo de la justicia

el señor de la montaña

también jefe en la ciudad

“Joaquín was what he is and will be

A fugitive from justice

The lord of the mountain

And a boss in the city”

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