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El Chapo

El Chapo

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Type Size PrintEmailRSSLinks to this article Email To A FriendPlease fill in the following information and we'll email this link.Your Email AddressRecipient's Email AddressSeparate multiple addresses with commas The guards at the city club mall in downtown Culiacán refused to talk about the bullet holes in the parking lot.

Or about the cross stuck into the pavement, inscribed with three pairs of initials and a melancholy tribute in Spanish: WE WILL LOVE YOU ALWAYS.

But almost anyone in this city of 1 million could tell you what happened here a little before 9 p.m.

on May 8, 2008: how three men climbed unawares into their white SUV after shopping at the mall; how three other cars zoomed up then unleashed a fusillade of AK-47 gunfire and a single blast from a bazooka.

All three men were killed, two of them bodyguards for the third, a hulking 22-year-old named Edgar Beltrán Guzman—the son of Joaquín Guzman Loera, better known as El Chapo ("Shorty"), the most wanted man in Mexico.Culiacán is the bare-knuckle state capital of Sinaloa, laid out between the Pacific Ocean and the Sierra Madre mountains, about 350 miles northwest of Mexico City.

I'd come here, as journalists do, in search of El Chapo.

If I hung around long enough, I'd been told, I might catch him at one of his famous restaurant drop-bys.

(His bodyguards sweep the room, confiscating all mobile phones before his dramatic entrance; he picks up everyone's tab afterward.) But when I arrived in town in early April, El Chapo hadn't been seen in public since his son's murder.

He'd gone underground, thanks in part to President Felipe Calderón's all-out war on the drug cartels—2,500 troops were now based in Culiacán and carrying out daily raids—but also because of a bloody feud with a former close ally and boyhood friend, Alfredo Beltrán Leyva, nicknamed Mochomo ("Redhead").Earlier this month a shootout between Mexican police and Mochomo's gang left 18 people dead in Acapulco.

The same gang allegedly killed El Chapo's son—revenge, it's said, after El Chapo betrayed Mochomo to federal authorities.

(Javier Valdez, an investigative reporter who looked into Mochomo's arrest for the respected local newsweekly Rio Doce, believes that the federales talked Guzman into giving up his onetime ally.

"The government was saying, 'We need somebody, we want somebody,' so to lower the pressure, El Chapo turned in Mochomo," he says.) In revenge, hundreds of narcotraficantes in Culiacán were killed.

Victims were found shot dead in parked cars, decapitated, burned, rolled up in bloody blankets and dumped on the roadside.

The satirical monthly La Locha ran a helpful glossary of drug-related terminology, including encobijado (a body wrapped up a blanket), ladrillo (a kilo brick of cocaine) and encajuelado (a corpse stuffed in a trunk).Matters got so bad that at the end of last year, a state official reportedly trekked up to a ranch in Durango state, deep in the eastern Sierra Madre, and got the jefe and Mochomo's men to agree to a truce.

(Government officials acknowledge a peace deal but deny any role in it.) Guzman was said to have gone to ground, holed up at one of his tightly guarded haciendas in the mountains.

The Sierra is "wild country, the natural place for El Chapo," says Ismael Bojórquez Perea, the editor of Rio Doce.

"He feels good and secure up there."Culiacán's economy has since gone into a tailspin.

Nightclubs, discos and restaurants that had catered to the narcos shut down.

The downtown street where chirrines—Mexican horn-and-string bands—once waited to be hired for spontaneous fiestas were dark and deserted.

Nobody, I was told, felt much like celebrating.

And nobody wanted to talk about El Chapo.Nobody, that is, except a man I'll call Enrique.

My translator and I picked up Enrique on my third morning near Culiacán's central market, in front of a fleabag hotel known to be a haunt for narcos.

Enrique had agreed to take me into the foothills to follow El Chapo's trail and perhaps arrange an interview.

Middle-aged, with the rangy build, bronzed complexion and callused hands of a man used to hard labor in the hot sun, Enrique had been acquainted with El Chapo for years and, he said, had just spent several weeks with him on the coast near Acapulco.

Enrique tells the truth, according to my translator, who has known him for a couple of years.

I checked out as much of his story as possible, and it all holds up.

He begged me not to reveal too much about his identity, and he didn't have to explain why.On a torpid April morning, with Enrique in the back seat, we set out on a two-lane highway east through the Culiacán Valley.

The road climbed through bush-covered hills speckled with saguaro cactuses.

As we switchbacked into the Sierra, with a hot wind blasting through the windows, Enrique fished his cell phone from his jeans pocket and showed us what he claimed were photos from his recent trip with El Chapo.

They showed a half-finished ranch house with concrete pillars and a wooden slat roof, standing alone in a jungle clearing near a beach.

Poppies, bursting with red flowers, covered the green slopes.

El Chapo had gone there with 45 men to oversee the arrival of a major cocaine delivery from Colombia, destined for the United States.

"El Chapo likes to receive the shipments himself," said Enrique, who grew up in the same remote mountain region of Sinaloa as the drug lord.

While waiting for the goods, El Chapo got some disturbing news.

First soldiers and federal police in Mexico City arrested the 33-year-old son of his longtime business partner Ismael (El Mayo) Zambada García.

Then Vincente Carrillo Leyva, son of the Juárez cartel's late leader, Amado Carrillo, was captured during his regular morning run in the capital.

The arrests made El Chapo nervous, said Enrique: "He said, 'Those kids were too exposed, living in the city.

I would never put myself in their position'."We pulled into Tamazula, a mountain village dominated by a 16th-century Jesuit-built church, an airstrip and an Army camp.

El Chapo used to sponsor fiestas in the town plaza, but that was before Calderón flooded the area with troops, Enrique said: "He doesn't feel comfortable here anymore." From this point, steep dirt trails wound through mountains and canyons, navigable only by all-terrain vehicles known here as quatromotos.

Guzman's lairs lay about four hours farther east, through a zone that Enrique, after conferring with friends in Tamazula, decided was too dangerous for a gringo to enter.

With the federal government stepping up its hunt for El Chapo, his guards were being extra-vigilant about unfamiliar faces.

"It's unsafe to go any further," Enrique declared finally.

"Up there is all El Chapo country."
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