It's looking like "Lord of the Skies" time again. Back in 1997, when Mexico had one main mega-druglord towering above the rest, his fame grew and grew until finally it got ridiculous. And so, according to the cynics, the powers-that-be just had to take him down.
The "Lord of the Skies" in 1997 was Amado Carrillo, the Mexican super-trafficker. His nickname came from his innovative fleet of bale-stuffed 727's. Technically, Carillo's bizarre 1997 death was from anesthetic reaction after ambitious plastic surgery--but somebody seemed to be convinced it was murder: his doctors were abducted and tortured to death. Leading up to their fatal glitch, the hit song "Lord of the Skies" had been all over the airwaves; Carrillo's extensive web of bribed officials and perhaps unseen investors were feeling the heat.
Today is a long way from 1997, with far worse cartel violence in Mexico, and, on the other hand, a far more extensive and reformed government "war" against organized crime. Post-millennial Mexico looks less like the bar fights of 1997 and a bit more like a throwback to the flames of Pancho Villa's Revolution in 1910-1920.
But today, too, despite a swarm of different crime cartels on the battleground, a single high-profile CEO is attracting a growing storm of publicity, as "the most wanted man in the world" and "the world's biggest drug lord." He's the fugitive billionaire tapped in absentia for the Forbes List. His strongholds in the outlaw mountains of Mexico's deep flank have been hit again and again by army units, but roving retinues of 300-man protective squads and die-hard mountaineer lookouts have always put him a step ahead. (The cynics, recalling the Lord-of-the-Skies playbill and revolving-door kingpins going back to the mists of the 1970s, might say that the capture efforts whiffed of theatrics).
This presentday super-capo is Joaquin Guzman, "El Chapo" (Shorty), the head of the Sinaloa Cartel. His tendrils reach across Mexico, far into the United States, Europe and elsewhere and, notably, into turf that used to belong to rivals, forming what some people call the largest drug trafficking organization on earth.
The buzz on El Chapo's legendary status--The New Robin Hood, The New Pablo Escobar, the New Al Capone--has reached the point where even sober reports looking beneath the legends sometimes fan the flames.
For example: the laundry cart story. One cornerstone of the Chapo myth is a very real event. In January 2001 he really did escape from Puente Grande prison, beginning his modern career and centerpiecing Mexico's rampant conspiracy theories about his being, allegedly, the government's favored capo. Many reports say that he got out of Puente Grande in a trundling laundry cart, like a cross between James Bond and Maxwell Smart. But many others say it was a laundry truck. Maybe it was both. But both are questioned by a best-selling book in Mexico, "The Narco Lords" (Los Señores del Narco), by journalist Anabel Hernandez. She charges that government collusion in the escape was so great that El Chapo was merely escorted out, wearing a Federal Police uniform. The labyrinth on such matters is too deep for easily taking sides on who's right--or who's possibly paranoid--but the point here is off to the side of all that: the myth has a gravitational pull of its own; the hero inevitably goes Hollywood.
Thus the second point: that mystifying photograph. In the flood of presentday news stories about the shadowy El Chapo, the same photo of him tends to be used again and again--though it is tremendously out of date and other photos are available that show him more recently. The favored photo (on the left), no matter how misleading, is certainly engaging. Dating from all the way back in 1993, it captures the deep, smoldering paradox we want to find in an epic hero. The face is not an iron mask, not frozen in a wiseguy's sneer. It is (how else to put it?) sensitive.
Orphaned as a child and then beaten and thrown out by a mountaineer uncle, with a third-grade education and a mind that spent his prison time playing chess, the Zorro of the Sinaloa-Durango mountains seems in the photo to be looking out at life in a kind of wounded wonder, asking why it would force him to do such things. The more recent photographs--like the ones offering the $5-million reward--show quite a different face, though still with almost a naivete (the freshly-starched purple dress shirt tucked into too-long jeans under a too-small trucker's cap looks poignantly unassuming--like the tales that he drives an old pickup, modest as Atilla or Stalin). His prison profile noted a high level of deceptiveness; rivals use the word "treacherous" practically as his middle name (while ignoring their own tender mercies, which might make anybody a little dodgy). He grew up hard, with a small stature and an extraordinary mind. Maybe that's what's looking out of that impossible-to-discard 1993 photo.
At any rate, he, too (wherever he is--whether in a sierra bunker or Argentina or Orange County or Cannes) is pointedly aware of the Lord of the Skies Syndrome--that last act in the Mexican drug drama when the biggest player gets so successful and visible that mysterious things start to happen.
But if they do, we may not be able to see them--not really--as we watch the laundry cart trundling entertainingly across the stage.