This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Sinaloan cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán, known more commonly as El Chapo, currently sits in solitary confinement at a high-security prison in Manhattan, where a judge denied his requests for outdoor exercise on suspicion Guzmán might try to escape—again. Before Mexico extradited him to the U.S. to face drug trafficking charges in 2017, Guzmán famously managed to flee prison in Mexico twice, and now faces life in prison.
Guzmán's notorious double prison escape cemented his status as a narcocultural icon and local legend in his home state of Sinaloa, where admirers revere him as a sort of benevolent overlord, a Robin Hood figure who gave money to the poor and kept the streets safe. Though his legal fate is sealed, the memory of El Chapo lives on in devoted fans across parts of Latin America and the U.S, and, for a growing number of women in Southern California, the drug lord remains enshrined in their nails.
The origin of the El Chapo manicure is somewhat of a legend itself, one that begins with Ana Guajardo, owner of Cha Cha Covers, a pop culture–inspired nail decal company. "I'm someone who's always been attracted to pop culture and cultural iconography that has to do with the culture I grew up with, specifically my Mexican-American roots," Guajardo said. Guajardo grew up in El Paso, Texas near the border between the United States and Ciudad Juárez, where she said narcoculture loomed large in her consciousness. "I grew up being very aware of cartelism, all of that. El Paso-Juarez is a big part of my upbringing."
Guajardo launched her online shop in 2012 at the height of the nail art craze, selling nail decals with images of Frida Kahlo, La Virgen de Guadalupe, and other similar figures of Mexican cultural iconography. Her unique designs caught the attention of Mexican rapper Ms Krazie, who contacted Guajardo with a special request for custom El Chapo nail decals. Ms Krazie later posted a photo of her El Chapo manicure on Instagram, creating a viral trend. Yulie Gonzalez, a nail artist in Ontario, California, said she was overwhelmed with requests for the Chapo manicure after posting a photo of her work for beauty influencer Jenny Ruiz. "It just completely took off," Gonzalez said. "It's different. This is not nail art that you can go into any salon and ask, 'Can I get a Chapo nail set?' It's just something that catches people's attention, and it's something that not everybody does, or not everybody offers."
Like El Chapo himself, the popular manicure trend is also a continuous source of controversy. Guajardo regularly fields complaints on social media from critics who say the Chapo nail decals glamorize the life and crimes of a ruthless mass murderer, but for many fans of the Chapo manicure, his nefarious reputation is part of the appeal. "Narco fashion is huge. It's such a part of our culture, it's so woven into our cultural fabric as Mexicans," Guajardo said. "The reality is that this is the Mexico we're dealing with right now."
For others disturbed by Guzmán's relentless cultural presence, the Chapo manicure serves as a symbolic gesture of dissent. Ofelia "Alexia" Almeraz started offering El Chapo-inspired manicures at her South Gate, California salon in 2015 after she heard about his second escape from prison. "I thought, 'I'm going to have to encapsulate him in one of my designs, and he won't escape from there.'" Almeraz gets daily requests for the Chapo manicure, and though few customers are as politically motivated, Almeraz is happy to help her clients feel beautiful regardless of their views. "I'm very proud that my idea has brought so many communities together at my salon," she said.
Guajardo takes a similarly neutral stance regarding customers' requests for El Chapo decals, or other designs featuring cartel figures like Pablo Escobar, but she believes her nail designs tap into customers' deep desire to connect—with a community, with an identity, or simply a pop culture moment. "The whole wealth of iconography and aspects of our culture growing up, what makes us feel beautiful or powerful, I'm always trying to tap into those images," Guajardo said.
In communities dominated by pop culture images of larger-than-life, narco-famous men, nails can become a subversive canvas that pays homage to beauty and femininity, co-opting and transforming male-dominated aesthetics and cultural narratives. The image of a convicted drug lord encircled in rhinestones may be jarring for some, but others feels it's a form of cultural iconography symbolizing the many contradictions of El Chapo idolatry and Mexican-American identity. "For my clients, I feel like they can express themselves through nail art. It's part of how they identify themselves, and some of it is very cultural," said Gonzalez.
"These images are very powerful, and to see yourself reflected in products that you can put on your body is really important. I'm always trying to fulfill that, whether it's a little scandalous or controversial, or just beautiful," Guajardo said. "If somebody wants to wear it, it makes them feel what it makes them feel. More power to you and your personal expression."