The legend of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman grew in stature this weekend with the stunning news that the Sinaloa cartel boss somehow tunneled out of a Mexican prison a year after being captured.
Like many in L.A.’s Mexican community keeping up with the sensational case, Sinaloa native Pedro Camarena was not particularly shocked.
The 46-year-old grew up in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa, Mexico, where Guzman’s cartel is based. The story of Guzman’s rise from poverty to king of the cartels is legendary there. Almost as legendary as the Mexican government’s apparent ineptitude – or corruption -- when it comes to dealing with its worst criminals.
“He didn’t leave by himself, someone in the government let him go -- looked the other way,” Camarena said Monday, waiting for his lunch at Mariscos Mi Lindo Sinaloa in Maywood. “The whole government is corrupt there.”
After all, Guzman’s daring weekend prison break isn’t even his first. The diminutive drug lord – who is under 5 foot 5 -- hid in a laundry cart to escape a different Mexican prison in 2001.
“If they catch him again, he will just escape again.” Camarena said with a shrug.
Guzman and his exploits were the talk of the town Monday in Mexican immigrant communities from Maywood to Boyle Heights and beyond. Some could not hide a certain admiration for his exploits. Others were disgusted with how Mexican authorities again let him slip away.
Boyle Heights resident Moises Gutierrez, 24, said Guzman is an undeniable anti-hero. “He gets caught, he goes in jail, then he comes out,” he said.
Like many, the U.S.-born son of Mexican immigrants grew up hearing the tall tales of El Chapo.
As a boy, the drug lord sold oranges before he ruthlessly consolidated cartel power, or so the legend goes, said Juan Lopez, 22. The cook at Mariscos Mi Lindo Sinaloa left Culiacán two years ago after the drug violence became too much to handle.
He said he was glad El Chapo was free. Guzman is sort of a folk hero in parts of Sinaloa. He is considered a friend of the poor and is known to give out money to those in need, Lopez said.
“It is good, so he can keep helping the people,” he said as he prepared a shrimp cocktail behind the counter at the Sinaloan restaurant decorated with murals of fishermen and posters of Chalino Sánchez, the famous singer from the state credited with inventing the narcocorrido or drug ballads.
The news of the elaborate escape grated on some immigrants living in the U.S. who said this was the latest embarrassment for their home country.
“The government opened the door for him,” said Maria Hernandez, 60, of Los Angeles on a trip to the grocery store. “He dug a tunnel and nobody heard anything? No. Enrique Peña Nieto opened the door for him,” she said, referring to the Mexican president.
For Luis Quevas, who left the Mexican state of Colima 23 years ago, El Chapo’s escape was a dark reminder that cartels wield enormous power in the country.
“He has it all: he will go wherever he wants, do whatever he wants. It is that simple,” he said on a lunch break from work at a market in Boyle Heights.