"Good person" is how the minister of the Apostolic church in Badiraguato, Sinaloa, describes Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
Francisco Villa Gurrola, in an interview with VICE News in his church, said he knows Guzman's mother and has met the drug lord, a native son of Badiraguato and now the most wanted man in Mexico — again — after his spectacular escape from a maximum-security prison.
"He is a good person," Villa Gurrola said confidently. "He is not a person who threatens, intimidates. He knows how to converse, knows how to speak. As an individual, I recognize him as a good person."
Such views are common in Chapo's home turf of Sinaloa, the narrow western state on the Pacific that is the historic and cultural center of Mexico's modern narco industry.
Guzman rose through the ranks of the Sinaloa federation, got arrested in 1993, and then escaped another maximum-security prison in 2001. He became the most feared capo in the country by the time Mexican authorities captured and jailed him once more in February 2014.
Nearly 17 months later, he did the implausible: escaping again through a mile-long tunnel fitted with a motorbike. Ten days later, Guzman is still at large.
Villa Gurrola is an old acquaintance of Guzman's mother, Maria Consuelo Loera, whom he referred to "a great Christian, a great woman." He said he met and spoke with the infamous drug lord once about three years ago.
In a fifteen minute conversation, the pastor invited Guzman to join his church. The drug lord told Villa Gurrola he'd think about it.
'They're even looking for him under rocks!'
Guzman was born in La Tuna, a village within the Badiraguato municipality. A highland farming center of some some 30,000 residents, Badiraguato is the gateway to the "Golden Triangle," the poppy and marijuana-growing region between Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua.
For the minister, Guzman is not the national security threat depicted by the mass media. Locals here say they respect "El Chapo" for the many services he's provided for the community.
"Right here people see [poppy and marijuana] as something normal. Of course they know that what he does is illegal," the pastor said.
"I'm not saying that there haven't been losses of enemies generated by the business, but he is not like they are showing him to be," Villa Gurrola added.
In Sinaloa, Guzman is commonly referred to not by name but as "el señor," which means "sir" but also translates as "lord." After his capture last year, some supporters in the state capital of Culiacan gathered in marches to call for Guzman's release. "Chapo, Make me a child," read posters held up by young women.
Public displays of support for the drug lord have been more muted this time around. Word spread on social media that a rally would be held for Guzman last Thursday outside the iconic La Lomita church in Culiacan, but only a few young men showed up.
"We are happy because the boss of Culiacan, of all Sinaloa, got out. We are cheerful," said 19-year-old Jose Antonio Medina.
"He is the biggest of them all, the baddest in the mob, the one who owns the cash," Medina said.
Some of the youth smoked cigarettes and listened to bouncy "narcocorridos" on their cell phones. One such ballad, they claimed, actually predicted Guzman's tunnel escape before it happened — a sign, at least, of Chapo's growing local legends.
"The gringos are hunting for Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman almost all over the world," hollered a newspaper hawker nearby. "They're even looking for him under rocks!"
At Culiacan's popular temple for the unofficial patron saint of the drug trade, Jesus Malverde, a souvenir seller named Teresa de Jesus Sanchez said she's never met the drug lord, but sees him as a kind-hearted man.
"I ask God to take care of him wherever he is, to take care of his sons, his wife," Sanchez said. "I think he's a very special person."
Although "El Chapo" is beloved in the area, Sanchez said she has not noticed any unusual activity in the temple since he escaped from prison. She recalled only "some girls came here yesterday to pray for him, asking God to protect him."
Javier Valdez, founding editor of the independent Culiacan media outlet Rio Doce, told VICE News that Guzman's cartel remains "extremely powerful" in the state and beyond. So far, seven public officials are facing charges for allegedly helping Guzman escape. Dozens of prison employees and inmates have been interviewed by authorities.
With the help of corrupt officials or guards, Guzman probably never stopped sending orders to his associates or relatives in the cartel, Valdez said, despite being locked up in the Altiplano federal prison through July 11.
"The government strategy has been media-driven," the editor said. "There hasn't been an attack on the cartel [structure], no going after its money laundering."
Back in Badiraguato, local officials are more concerned about the municipality's image than of Chapo's whereabouts.
Mayor Mario Alfonso Valenzuela Lopez told VICE News that his administration has focused on capital projects to improve the public face of Chapo's hometown. He said he thinks Badiraguato has a future as a tourism destination.
"We're making changes to the county seat so that it becomes attractive for tourism," Valenzuela said. "In this way, people won't have to depend on drug production to make a living."
"Maybe now," the mayor ventured, "we'll have more tourism as a result of the curiosity to know Chapo's birthplace."
Musielik reported from Culiacan and Badiraguato, and Hernandez from Mexico City. David Agren and Gabriela Gorbea contributed to this report.
Below, excerpt of "Drug Lord: The Legend of Shorty," by Frontline: