CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — El Chapo is living legend in Mexico, but inside a relatively unknown prison just across the border from Texas, he's become a neighborhood celebrity.
“Everybody wants to meet him. The people from the Sinaloa Cartel and even his enemies from the Juárez Cartel,” a prison guard at the Ciudad Juárez jail where El Chapo is being held told Fusion under the condition of anonymity.
“He is a celebrity. There are people trying to bribe the officers to shake hands with El Chapo. Many of them are in jail for working for him, and others for working against him, indirectly, but all of them want a piece of El Chapo,” the prison guard claims.
But the celebrity buzz has become too much for a city like Juárez. Mayor Javier González Mocken recently called a press conference to urge the federal government to expedite the kingpin's extradition to the United States and free them of El Chapo.
“We want the extradition process for El Chapo to be accelerated. Ciudad Juárez has no interest in giving its attention to this person,” said Mocken.
Other people in town say they are equally eager to be done with with El Jefe de Jefes — or "the boss of bosses," a nickname popularized in a song by Tigres del Norte (some versions say the ballad is about another narco).
“Don’t even ask me anything about El Chapo, we are tired of hearing about him," says Raul Almazan, a bus driver in Juárez. "He is done. He is history. And he does not deserves that much attention.”
The making of a legend
The legend of El Chapo was forged in the underground: tunnels, murder, corruption, two prison escapes, and one spectacular GoPro raid. For many years he was the biggest drug kingpin, the most wanted man, and the richest narco— in short, a man capable of killing or buying anyone who crossed his path.
Now his story appears to be entering its final chapter, as El Chapo sits in jail cell on the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez and waits for extradition to the U.S.
Then again, Chapo's 20-year criminal career has had several false endings before, only to lead to the some of the wildest chapters in his story.
“El Chapo is already a living legend. All his escapes from prison and his presence in the media have made him that,” said Howard Campbell, a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of the book Drug War Zone.
Campbell says El Chapo's notoriety ranks him right up there with other iconic criminals from history.
“Pablo Escobar is for sure the main narco superstar in Latin America, and I would say El Chapo is second,” Campbell told Fusion.
But for border residents, there's nothing sexy about El Chapo's infamy. His legend is a memory of blood, violence and pain.
“He will remain for sure in the memory of juarenses as an aggressor, an intruder who caused a lot of deaths,” said Gustavo Martínez, a postgraduate student in Ciudad Juárez.
Guzman’s war against the Juárez Cartel left a big death toll, and the ghosts will continue to haunt people here even after El Chapo gets extradited.
Alejandro Bringas, a local photographer who has snapped thousands of pics of Sinaloa Cartel victims, said all he will remember from El Chapo is scenes of brutal killings.
“El Chapo is now history; another legend of violence and a lot of death in Juarez,” Bringas said. “But since he is in jail, many have lost interest in anything related to him.”
After Guzmán was rearrested in January, extraditing him to the United States seems like the best way to keep him behind bars following two prison escapes in Mexico.
A few weeks ago a Mexican judge approved El Chapo's extradition to the U.S., where the drug boss faces charges in several states like Texas, California, Illinois and New York from crimes ranging from drug traficking to money laundering. Chapo’s lawyers have filed several appeals to block his extradition, but U.S. officials are confident he will be in their custody soon.
“We will for sure have him here in the U.S. very soon to be put on trial for murder and drug trafficking. It’s just a matter of time,” said former DEA agent Hector Berrellez.
But many people in Juárez think—or perhaps fear— that El Chapo might have one more trick up his sleeve.
“He was brought to Ciudad Juárez to escape. We all know this local prison can’t keep El Chapo behind bars,” said Agustin Ramos, a local taxi driver.
Arturo Alonso, a burrito vendor in the town of Samalayuca, a few miles from the federal prison where El Chapo is being held, also thinks the drug lord will try to make a final break for freedom.
“He will run. There is no way he will stay here in this toy prison. That’s why they brought El Chapo to Juárez. Either that or to be killed in prison,” he said.
Those who have known El Chapo personally say part of his legend is his ability to make friends. They describe him as a humble and happy short man.
Grecia Venegas is known by many Juárez residents as “El Chapo’s goddaughter” — a claim to fame that Fusion wasn’t able to confirm, but a reputation that's taken on a life of its own. She claims her dad, Julián Venegas, helped Chapo escape from prison the first time in 2001, when he slipped out of jail hidden in a laundry cart. Several Mexican media reports identify Venegas as one of Chapo's accomplices during that escape.
“I saw him almost every three months when I was still a kid. He always called me his gorda, and asked my mother to buy me dresses or dolls. I remember him as a very loving man, never as the man they say he is in the news,” Venegas claims. “I still love him very much. My whole family loves him and misses him. For us he will always be part of the family, whatever they say.”
Actor Sean Penn also describes El Chapo as a man of “an indisputable charisma” in the infamous article he wrote for Rolling Stone magazine.
“Throughout my introduction, Chapo smiles a warm smile. In fact, in what would be a seven-hour sit-down, I saw him without that smile only in brief flashes,” he wrote.
The legend of El Chapo could end at the border, amid whispers and rumors. But the legacy of violence and drugs will remain. There will likely be more tunnels, more bundles of dirty money, and more murders over turf.
For some in Mexico, especially in El Chapo's home state Sinaloa, the kingpin will be remembered as a role model. The man who built an empire out of dirt and poverty. But for most, El Chapo is the man who left a trail of blood and bad memories.
Luis Chaparro, 28, is a Mexican freelance journalist born in Ciudad Juarez and based in Mexico City. His articles have appeared in Proceso, EFE, VICE News, El Diario, El Daily Post, and others. Chaparro specializes in reports on drug trafficking organizations, immigration and US-Mexico issues.