Last week I was listening to the “Today” programme on Radio 4, and an item came on about Joaquín “El Chapo” [Shorty] Guzmán – the Mexican drug lord who escaped from a maximum security jail in July by running through a mile-long tunnel equipped with lights and ventilation. Guzmán is, to my mind at least, a nasty piece of work: head of the Sinaloa cartel, he is considered by the Americans to be the most powerful drug trafficker in the world, and personally admits to having killed about three thousand people. (Although he recently threatened Donald Trump, which just goes to show that no-one is all bad.) With regard to money laundering, in 2010 the US charged him during his first spell in prison with laundering US$14 billion of drug proceeds, but he escaped (in a laundry cart…) before he could be extradited to stand trial.
But in his home town of Badiraguato in Sinaloa in the north-west of Mexico, El Chapo is something of a folk hero. Many compare him to Robin Hood, taking money from rich drug addicts to give it to poor local farmers. They also take pride in a local boy who has become a world leader – albeit in crime. The local mayor sums up the contradiction his people face: “[El Chapo] is a person who, in his line of business, is very intelligent. It’s complicated but at the end of the day it generates jobs in the country, it moves money – and a lot of it. We don’t want to face up to the fact that our economies to a large extent depend on that. Sadly that’s how it is.”
Indulgence around criminals is nothing new: look at the recent misty-eyed reminiscing about Arthur Daley, and the undimmed popularity of Del Boy Trotter. If such tolerance were limited to fictional criminals, it wouldn’t matter a jot, but look at the elevation of the Great Train Robbers, and Bonnie and Clyde, and Howard “Mr Nice” Marks. If a criminal were genuinely motivated by a desire to help the poor that might be something, but despite what those from his home town might think, El Chapo has made sure that plenty of the wealth stays close to home: the authorities have already uncovered sixteen houses, four ranches and 43 vehicles that he owns, and his sons regularly update their Twitter feeds with photos of their luxury cars, designer pets (lion cubs being a favourite), palatial homes and supermodel girlfriends – along with plenty of images of stacks and stacks of money, and gruesome pictures of victims of the war between the cartels. But even that seems not to put people off. Adrian Cabrera, a blogger in Culiacán, the city closest to Guzman’s home village, recently posted this: “Why do people admire him? Because he’s a living legend. He’s like Al Capone. He’s like Lucky Luciano. Like Tony Soprano. Like Scarface. He’s like a character on a TV show, except that he’s real, he’s alive.” Unlike his victims.