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El Chapo Really Liked to Visit His Mom in the Mountains, Locals Say

In tiny mountain hamlets where Chapo grew up in poverty, locals say the kingpin visited his mother several times between his spectacular jailbreak in July and his dramatic recapture last Friday that has left some feeling abandoned.

by Jan-Albert Hootsen
Jan 13 2016, 3:50pm

Photo by Jan-Albert Hootsen

Angel Zepeda Guzmán, a heavyset man with an impressive gray moustache and a white cowboy hat, sits on the porch of his yellow house in Arroyo Seco, a hamlet in the part of the Sierra Madre mountains where Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán grew up. 

"Chapo was careless," Zepeda says of the Mexican drug lord who escaped from prison in July and who was recaptured last week. "I think he was overly confident, and that's how they caught him."

Zepeda, who says he is related to the kingpin, believes he would still be at large had he not left the mountains, where he could count on the local population, and headed for the coastal city of Los Mochis where he was caught.

The 53-year-old's tone is notably casual given Guzmán's notorious criminality. But this is the heartland of Chapo's Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico's most powerful criminal organization with networks that move drugs throughout the world. It is a place where drug trafficking is seen as a normal part of life, and where local traffickers who rise to prominence are often treated as folk heroes. 

Those who are critical of the business, and its associated extreme violence, know it is wise to keep such opinions to themselves. Most people will only talk to reporters if their names are kept out of print.

'Maybe he's violent, but he's the product of his circumstances...That's how things are in the sierra'

One former poppy farmer who grew up in the area acknowledged Chapo's role in the horrific drug wars estimated to have killed well over 100,000 people across Mexico in the last decade, but suggested it was not really his fault.

"Maybe he's violent, but he's a product of his circumstances," the former farmer said. "That's how things are in the sierra."

The part of the sierra where Chapo grew up lies about a four-hour drive from the town of Badiraguato, itself about one hour from the city of Culiacán, the capital of the state of Sinaloa.

The chilly January wind makes the blue sky seem particularly stark. Small streams crawl through the valleys and past the mountainsides covered in amapa, a purple flower. Beyond the peaks, invisible from the meandering dirt roads leading into the mountains, farmers harvest opium and marijuana. They have been doing this for many decades.

Just a stone's throw from Arroyo Seco lies the soaring barren peak of the Cerro Viejo, and under it La Tuna, the hamlet where Chapo was born and raised. It's a small collection of one-story houses, congregated around the huge and brightly colored mansion that the drug lord built for his mother once his fortune grew.

At least two inhabitants in the area told VICE News, under condition of anonymity, that they had personally seen Chapo during the six-month period between his dramatic tunnel escape from the Altiplano prison and his recapture last Friday. Several others said that, while they had not seen him themselves, they knew he had been around — maybe three or four times.

Related: Mexican Drug Lord 'El Chapo' Escapes Prison Through Elaborate Tunnel With Motorcycle

There were several navy operations in the area reported during Chapo's months on the run. Locals said none had got close to catching him when he came and went, primarily, they said, to visit his aging mother, Consuelo Loera.

Chapo himself told Sean Penn that he saw his mother often, according to the now infamous interview the actor published in Rolling Stone on Saturday.

"See your mother much?" Penn says he asked Chapo. "All the time. I hoped we would meet at my ranch and you could meet my mother. She knows me better than I do. But something came up and we had to change the plan," the actor recalls him responding.

Related: How Kate Del Castillo Became the Rebel Celebrity Who Took Sean Penn to 'Chapo'

Though few had heard of the interview causing a ruckus around the world, those who knew him as a child confirmed some of the videotaped answers he sent to Penn after their seven-hour encounter over tequila and tacos, accompanied by Mexican soap opera star Kate del Castillo.

"I remember from the time I was six until now, my parents, a very humble family, very poor, I remember how my mom made bread to support the family," Chapo says in the video. "I would sell it, I sold oranges, I sold soft drinks, I sold candy."

'For as long as I can remember he was always enterprising, always looking for ways to make money.'

People in the area where he grew up say they recall him going on a donkey to the nearby hamlet of La Palma where he would fill a box with oranges and take them back to La Tuna to sell them. A few years later, now in his teens, the future kingpin would take his burro on longer return trips to another hamlet called Huixiopa where he would buy soft drinks there at the general store of Doña Tonia to sell them back home. 

Zepeda describes these activities as a sign of both Chapo's desperation to escape the grinding poverty of his family and of his business acumen.

"For as long as I can remember he was always enterprising, always looking for ways to make money," Zepeda recalls. "He was very intelligent that way."

Five years his cousin's junior, Zepeda also remembers the future drug lord's sporting tastes. "Chapo liked to play volleyball," he says, adding that they often played together, "Three against three."

Related: Why Chapo's Capture Won't Stop the Flow of Weed, Meth, Cocaine, and Heroin

Chapo is widely reported to have begun his career in organized crime in the late 1970's in service of Pedro Avilés Pérez, considered to be one of the founding fathers of the international Sinaloan drug trade. Many sources say he was Chapo's uncle, though Pedro Avilés Burgos, a cousin of Avilés Pérez, says that's not true.

Now 74-year-old Avilés Burgos lives in Huixiopa in an orange house that overlooks the store where Chapo used to buy soft drinks to sell at a markup.

"I remember Chapo passing by my house every once in a while when he was a teenager," Avilés said. "He had a girlfriend or two here like many kids did."

Some locals say Chapo's trafficking career began in earnest when he bought a truck in the late 1970s and began moving opium. Others say he started as a pistolero, a triggerman, for an established trafficker. Either way, he was less present in the area from then on.

For La Tuna, Chapo's meteoric rise in the drug trafficking world led to the construction, in 1989, of a small Apostolic church for his mother.

Local's say the religion's particular sway in La Tuna is a sign of his mother's influence, and her religiosity is immediately apparent when entering the hamlet.

A recently placed sign welcoming visitors to La Tuna. Photo by Jan-Albert Hootsen.

Past the 'Welcome to La Tuna' sign, recently placed by the local government — significantly larger than the welcome signs in other hamlets — stands a pedestal with a verse from the Bible. Locals say it once held a statue of one of Chapo's heads of security, nicknamed El Comandante, but this was quickly taken down by the army several years ago. At several strategic street corners, psalms and other Bible verses can be seen on metal plaques.  

The church itself is small, but impeccably maintained and painted every year, according to a woman who belongs to the congregation. Most people in La Tuna and surrounding hamlets are members, she says, though traditional Catholicism still dominates the wider mountain region.

Chapo's hand is also seen a little down the road from the church where the local cemetery contains a recently constructed white mausoleum the size of a small two-story house. Inside are flowers and a plastic banner bearing the name and photos of Estebán Guerra, who died on November 23, aged 31. On the banner, he can be seen both in the cockpit of, and next to, small one-engine airplanes of the kind regularly used to transport drugs and people around the sierra.

'There is no one here to take his place and mantain order...We all really miss him'

Locals say Guerra was a pilot born in La Tuna who moved drugs for Chapo's organization and died in a plane crash in neighboring Sonora state. They believe Chapo paid for the massive tomb to honor his service to the cartel.

"Chapo took good care of his people, and not just the ones working for him," says Pedro Avilés. "He maintained order in the entire region. There are no robberies, kidnappings, or extortions here because of him. When people got into a serious fight and he was in La Tuna, he would summon them and mediate."

Now that the local boy turned local folk hero and international kingpin is back in prison, locals say they feel abandoned. They fear petty crime will flourish, and that there could even be turf wars over who controls the poppy and marijuana fields.

"There is no one here to take his place and maintain order," says Zepeda, Chapo's cousin. "We all really miss him."

Related: Chapo's Return to Prison: The Hunt, the Biopic, and a Weakness for Tunnels

Follow Jan-Albert Hootsen on Twitter: @Jayhootsen