ALMOLOYA DE JUAREZ, Mexico — Álvaro Medina García’s tiny bodega, outside the razor-wire fence of Mexico’s super-max prison, is stocked with sugary apple soda and strawberry wafers, even though he himself is diabetic to the point of losing his vision. He sells a variety of cigarettes but doesn’t smoke.
That’s how he sees Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the drug lord-turned-Houdini who burrowed out of the country’s most secure penitentiary through an underground tunnel over the weekend: a good man catering to outside demand.
“A thief is someone who takes your watch, steals your phone,” he said. “This man gives work to thousands of people and raises the economy of the country.”
It’s people in the United States who buy his drugs, Medina added.
Amid the working-class neighborhoods and rolling farmlands surrounding the prison, there is support for Guzmán and fascination with his escape. Residents see him as the drug lord, not the assassin; the benefactor, not the extortionist; a world-famous Mexican celebrity who outsmarted and embarrassed a deeply unpopular government.
“He’s turned into an idol for many people,” said Santillán Gómez, 25, a federal police officer sent to help with the search effort. “He’s more than a drug trafficker. With this, many people will consider him a saint.”
The details of Guzmán’s escape — whether he bribed members of the prison staff or neighbors along the tunnel route to help or keep silent — have not been fully unraveled. Mexico’s interior minister, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, said Monday night that Guzmán could not have escaped without the complicity of some prison officials, as he was in isolation under 24-hour video surveillance and wearing a tracking bracelet. But because of privacy and human rights concerns, Osorio Chong said, the cameras in Guzmán’s cell did not cover a small portion of the shower area, and it was in that tiny blind spot that his tunnelers made their entrance.
But it’s possible, given the logistical near-impossibilities of his escape, that Guzmán was aided by people outside his circle along the way. Among the most confounding aspects of the operation was the last portion of the nearly mile-long tunnel. Some nearby residents work as cooks or janitors at the prison, and some remember its construction, which finished in 1990. They recalled that it had a thick concrete-and-rebar foundation seemingly difficult to tunnel through, let alone without making enough noise to be noticed.
The record of the brutal recent years of Mexico’s drug war shows that Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel — the wealthiest and most powerful drug-running operation — killed thousands of people. He has a long rap sheet in Mexico and the United States. And now he is again one of the world’s most-wanted criminals.
“If we start digging too close, they have some sensors, and they send people and say, ‘Hey, who’s digging here?” said a construction worker installing water pipes in a large trench just outside the prison’s perimeter fence, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “This is a federal jail.”
Around the prison, an area that has not been particularly hurt by Guzmán’s henchmen, he seems to exist more as a novelty. After a frantic day of dragnet police searches and helicopter patrols, life here is slowly drifting back to normal, leaving people to discuss this strange phenomenon.
“Chapo is one of the narcos who doesn’t bother people,” said a man in a butcher shop who gave his name as Pablo. “They’re not all the same. He doesn’t kidnap, rob, kill. And he gives jobs.”
Sitting on her stoop outside the prison, as federal police officers stood guard on the corner, 15-year-old Olivia de la Cruz worried less about Guzmán’s past than his possible future.
“He can come back and start a war,” she said. “He’s one of the big ones. It depends on how they treated him inside. If it was bad, he’s going to come back.”
At the bodega, Medina was more concerned about his government than Chapo. Why had they made up this elaborate escape story, he wondered? Weren’t they really just criminals themselves, all working together?
“Now they’re going to put me in the jail for saying all this,” he said. “I guess it’s good there’s a tunnel.”
Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.