In El Chapo's home state, Mexicans bemoan his punishment far from home

By Jesus Bustamante
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In El Chapo's home state, Mexicans bemoan his punishment far from home

A view of the "Saint Jesus Malverde" chapel in Culiacan

By Jesus Bustamante

CULIACAN, Mexico (Reuters) - Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is never going back home to Sinaloa.

The Mexican drug lord will instead spend the rest of his days in lock-up thousands of miles away in the United States, after a judge on Wednesday sentenced Guzman to life in prison, plus 30 years.

In Culiacan, the capital in Mexico's northwestern state of Sinaloa, locals lamented that Mexicans were deprived of the chance to see the notorious capo tried, convicted and punished on his native soil.

"He doesn't stop being Mexican... He should be paying for his sins here in Mexico," said Victor Estrada, who was at a public plaza in Culiacan.

After an 11-week trial, a U.S. jury in February found Guzman guilty of trafficking tons of cocaine, heroin and marijuana and engaging in murder conspiracies as a leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, one of Mexico's most treacherous drug trafficking groups.

U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan has ordered Guzman to forfeit $12.6 billion. He also said Guzman deserved the harshest sentence possible because any potentially redeeming qualities were overshadowed by "overwhelming evil."

Nevertheless, many in Sinaloa treat Guzman as a Robin Hood figure who helped the poor mountain village where he grew up and neighboring communities.

At a Culiacan chapel dedicated to the folk saint of drug smugglers, Jesus Malverde, vendors sell figurines of a mustachioed Guzman wielding a rifle and grenades as well as framed photos of the drug lord, right alongside colorful rosaries and images of Jesus Christ.

"He's had his bad side, but for me he was a good person," said Rafael Morales. "He helped Culiacan a lot... many people love him."

If he had been sent to prison in Mexico, at least his family would be able to visit, noted Karla Arellano, who called the sentencing unjust.

"Whatever he may have done, he helped," she said.

Guzman was extradited in 2018 following two break-outs from Mexican jails - one purportedly in a laundry cart, the other through a mile-long tunnel.

Given that record, Guzman will likely be sent to a Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado reserved for dangerous criminals.

Brianda Lopez said the sentence was fair - and just as harsh as she expected - but agreed with others that Mexico should have had a role in his judgment.

"It's sad that a person who causes so much harm in his country has to be judged in another, and not his own," she said.

She added that although Guzman is behind bars, the drug trade's cycle of violence and killing persists.

"We see crime everyday, every minute. We all know someone that was killed or a cousin of a friend that's involved in drug trafficking," she said.

"He already has a successor; it doesn't change anything."

Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, Guzman's long-time partner, is believed to have taken over Sinaloa Cartel operations since Guzman's capture in 2016 and consolidated power for the cartel, which is the biggest drug distributor on U.S. streets.

Miguel Soto, who left a candle at the Jesus Malverde chapel, said it was for the best that Guzman will be jailed far from home. "Here, it's easier for him to escape than in the United States," he said.


(Reporting by Jesus Bustamante, Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)