The Lawless Town That Bred the World’s Most Wanted Man

Oct 29, 2013 at 9:35 AM ET

LA TUNA, MEXICO—Only two dirt roads wind through this small town in the heart of Mexico’s rugged north west, where the air smells like marijuana and unmarked planes often buzz across the sky. There is no school here, no hospital, no police station, only a general store, a church, a taco stand, a series of small houses—and sometimes, I hear, were visits from the town’s notorious native son: Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, otherwise known as Chapo.

I came here a few months ago to find the roots of Chapo, the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, which is widely considered to be the world’s most powerful drug trafficking organization. After the death of Osama bin Laden, Chapo became the world’s most wanted fugitive. On Saturday he was arrested in the Mexican beach resort of Mazatlan (a favorite of American tourists). But it was only months ago that you could feel his presence, and his power, in this tiny and humble hamlet.

Though many have tried, to the best of my knowledge, no reporter had ever managed to venture this close to the base of El Chapo’s operations, tucked away in the foothills of the rugged Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in the northern state of Sinaloa. Chapo’s henchmen do not take kindly to strangers.

The night before, two residents of Badiraguato, a town 35 miles southeast of La Tuna, briefed me about what to expect. One of them, a former police chief, went over the rules: Don’t take photos of Chapo’s gunmen, don’t mention Chapo’s name, don’t wander around on my own. Two security consultants with experience in the region put it more bluntly. La Tuna, they said, is the most dangerous town in the world.

To get to there, I tagged along with Felipe Ortíz and Victor García, two municipal government employees. Once every two months they bring in boxes of groceries, envelopes with cash and registration forms for social security programs—all courtesy of the state.

These meager handouts comprise the federal government’s small presence in the area. Most of the villages around La Tuna are dirt poor and largely neglected by the state. Growing and selling drugs is the only real way to get by, but Chapo, 56, whose nickname means “shorty,” was doing much more than that. He became so wealthy from selling drugs that Forbes ranked him amongst the world’s richest people in 2010 and 2011. His estimated wealth: $1 billion.

At first blush, that may seem like a lot, but the Sinaloa Cartel is responsible for half of all the illegal drugs smuggled into the United States. It’s also responsible for much of the bloodshed plaguing Mexico, where an estimated 70,000 people have died in gangland warfare over roughly the past decade. La Tuna and its surroundings are part of the Golden Triangle, a lawless region spanning across some 150,000 square miles. From the air, you can see the white poppy fields dotting the mountaintops, as if they’re covered in snow. This is the heart of Chapo’s empire: 10 percent of the world’s heroin grows here and 80 percent of the country’s marijuana.

Such success is why Chapo became a wanted man in Mexico, with a bounty of $5 million on his head. He was also perhaps the country’s most elusive man having escaped a maximum security prison in 2001 in  a laundry cart. Since then, Mexican and US authorities were hunting —until Saturday, to no avail.

While on the run, some El Chapo sightings in recent years became the stuff of legends. Once, in 2007, he allegedly visited a restaurant in Culiacán, Sinaloa’s largest city. According to eyewitness reports, Chapo presented himself to his fellow diners, had them hand over their cell phones and didn’t let anyone leave until he finished his meal. When he finally departed, the other patrons allegedly learned he had paid their bills. And his legend continued to grow. Countless narcorridos—narrative songs that originated in northern Mexico—have been written about Chapo. Most mocked the government’s inability to capture him.

There was no sign of Chapo when we arrived in La Tuna, after a four-hour ride over an unfinished highway and rocky dirt roads. Once Felipe pulled up to the town square, dozens of people lined up next to the car, eager to receive their government handouts. Most women were dressed in colorful skirts, while the men wore jeans and baseball hats. The mood was cheerful, and everone looked at me with more curiosity than suspicion. I felt calm, but I was aware that my presence was only tolerated because of Ortíz and García.

Only one building stands out in La Tuna, a red and white colonial hacienda-style villa, with a satellite dish on the roof. This is the home of Doña Consuelo Loera, Chapo’s mother. Outside this house, three gatilleros, youths carrying AK-47 assault rifles, sat in a small all-terrain vehicle, registering any movement to and from the village.

Though not the official representative of the town’s municipal government, Ortíz and García say Chapo’s mother often receives the state’s aid packages. She makes sure they’re equally distributed. On this day, however, she’s nowhere to be found. The gatilleros greet me with a light nod, but shoot me a sharp glance whenever I venture too close to Doña Consuelo’s house. Nothing needs to be said. Chapo’s town, Chapo’s rules.

I still get a pretty good view of Chapo’s mother’s home. It’s an L-shaped, two-story mansion, complete with a kiosco, a small roofed stage seen in every Mexican town square. Whenever Chapo flew in to visit his mother, Ortíz says that’s where his favorite bands performed the traditional northern Mexican banda music.

From the back of her house, a narrow passage leads to a small church. Doña Consuelo has apparently founded her own evangelical christian community in La Tuna. Most people in town are members. A group is gathered under a white stretched canvas at the entrance of the church. Doña Consuelo is most likely there, Ortíz says, but there is no way to get closer. The gatilleros won’t let me.

The armed teenagers are always within earshot, carefully monitoring my every move, making sure I don’t ask too many questions. As the police chief warned me, most people here didn’t want to talk about Chapo. Some wouldn’t even acknowledge he exists. “I know we have this reputation of being a narcotown,” says Alfredo Moreno Ortíz, the sole representative of the municipal government in La Tuna, “but drug trafficking is really a thing of the past. There hasn’t been a drug trafficker here for 50 years.”

Moreno Ortíz’s job consists of signing for the bi-monthly government aid. He had no real authority here; Chapo was the de facto governor of La Tuna and it surroundings. Felipe Ortíz tells me the drug boss allowed some government presence, as long as it didn’t interfere with his business.

Because Chapo grew up in grinding poverty and knows every single resident of La Tuna (many are his relatives) locals saw him as a benevolent dictator. Yes, he sold heroin and weed, but he created jobs where there were none, he improved their lives and made the forgotten town a better place. “Whenever someone falls ill, he gives us money for medical treatment,” says José Elisio Álvarez, 76. “He built houses for us, soccer fields, brought electricity and drinking water.”

The Mexican government sees things differently. The army has a strong presence in the area. It has an airfield in nearby Badiraguato and a small forward command post in the valley close to La Tuna. From there, the military was hunting Chapo, and destroying his poppy and marijuana plantations. Before his capture, Chapo visited La Tuna every two weeks, I was told. When he was  there, the army coincidentally was not.

Locals said that the power of Chapo was a boon, but not an infinite one. “He does what the government refuses to do,” says Álvarez, adding that old age allows him to be more candid than most in La Tuna. “But the fact that this is the home base of a drug lord doesn’t make us rich people. We still need to stand in line to get a handout. What we need are jobs, economic development. The government seems to think we don’t need that, because we have the drug trade. Well, as long as that doesn’t change, Chapo will be around, because the people here support him.”

His words stay with me as I leave town, the gatilleros watching as I depart. One of them, his eyes fixed on me, reports something over his radio as we drive away. Thankfully, we’re not being followed.

Back in Badiraguato I run into a friend. “How was La Tuna?” he asks. I had not spoken to him about my trip. Here in the sierra, news travels fast.