MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico’s ruling conservative party had been in power just 50 days when drug lord Joaquin Guzman slipped out of a dark prison and into Mexican folklore.
Eleven years later, President Felipe Calderon’s government is furiously trying to flush out the man nicknamed El Chapo - “Shorty” - to rescue its bloody war on drug cartels.
Guzman’s flight from a maximum security prison in a laundry cart on January 19, 2001, was a major embarrassment to Calderon’s predecessor Vicente Fox, who had just begun a new era as the first National Action Party (PAN) official to lead Mexico.
Now, Guzman is the greatest symbol of the cartels’ defiance of Calderon, whose war unleashed a wave of gang violence that is eroding support for the PAN ahead of presidential elections on July 1. Calderon is barred by law from seeking a second term.
In the last few months, authorities have arrested dozens of Guzman’s henchmen, seized tons of his contraband and razed the biggest single marijuana plantation ever found in Mexico, subsequently chalked up as another setback for El Chapo.
Over Christmas, three senior Guzman associates fell into Mexico’s hands, including one named as his chief of operations in Durango, a state where he has been rumored to hide out.
“He’s certainly aware people very close to him have been captured over the past two weeks, so he must be seriously concerned,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings Institution expert on the drug trade. “The noose seems to be tightening.”
Since his nighttime escape, Guzman’s legend has grown daily, as the wily capo evaded capture, eliminated rivals and sold billions of dollars worth of drugs across the border.
Meanwhile, the PAN, who won office under Fox pledging to restore law and order in a country tired of the corruption that marred the 71-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has become more and more bogged down in the drug war.
Calderon staked his reputation on rooting out the cartels, but the army-led struggle has cost over 46,000 lives in five years, spooking tourists and investors alike.
As Calderon fought to contain the violence, he had to watch Guzman feted for success when the kingpin placed 41st in a Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people in 2009.
Immortalized in song both in Spanish and English, Guzman seemed so untouchable that rumors began spreading the Mexican government had made a deal with him to keep the peace.
That talk has now faded, and Attorney General Marisela Morales said in October Guzman would be captured “very soon.”
North of the border, things have also turned sour for the fugitive trafficker, who made headlines as the world’s most wanted man after the death of Osama bin Laden.
In last few weeks, U.S. authorities in Arizona announced details of raids in which they arrested over 200 people linked to the Sinaloa cartel, named for the northwestern Pacific state where Guzman was born, probably in 1957.
Surveys show the public backs the crackdown on the cartels. But it also believes Calderon is losing the drug war.
Alberto Vera, director of research at pollster Parametria, said only something of the magnitude of Guzman’s capture would persuade voters Calderon was winning. That could boost support for his party by two or three points if it happened not long before the election, he added.
“Catching him would do Calderon credit,” said Luis Pavan, 40, a Mexico City insurance agent. “Fighting the gangs is one of the few good things the government has done.”
Weakened by the mounting death toll, Calderon’s PAN lags the opposition PRI by about 20 points, recent polls show.
Capturing Guzman could also benefit U.S. President Barack Obama, who faces a tough re-election battle against Republicans that accuse him of being weak on border security.
Arturo R. Garino, mayor of Nogales - an Arizona border city lying right on Guzman’s main smuggling routes - said the kingpin’s arrest would be a boost to both governments. “Cutting the head off the snake would help our economy too,” he said.
Intelligence officials declined to say if efforts to catch Guzman had increased, but his biographer Malcolm Beith said there was little doubt they had, as recent operations on El Chapo’s turf were being conducted by crack military units.
“It’s been special forces and marines to the best of my knowledge. These guys are called in for special raids because they’re less likely to have been infiltrated,” he said.
Officials who have tracked Guzman say it is one thing to locate him and quite another to capture him.
Like late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, Guzman has a reputation as a protector of his heartland in Sinaloa, a rugged region that the state still struggles to penetrate, where news of approaching of strangers quickly reaches him and his followers.
“Chapo has allegedly paid for schools, hospitals, and other public projects,” said Beith. “Second, he’s just about the only source of employment in parts of Sinaloa. And he has provided security of a sort. He’s been known to apprehend small-time crooks or thugs when they got out of hand. Lastly, the name Chapo pretty much puts the fear of God into people.”
With locals watching his back, Guzman has always had just enough warning to get away at the last minute. The exception was when soldiers captured him in Guatemala in June 1993.
New surveillance technology has raised the stakes though.
Mexico has admitted allowing U.S. spy planes to track the cartels, reviving memories of the chase for Escobar, who was gunned down on a Medellin rooftop in December 1993.
The U.S. Army’s spy unit Centra Spike played a crucial part in that takedown - using planes to triangulate Escobar’s phone calls - and U.S. surveillance drones stationed just across the Arizona border are likely being used to help catch Guzman.
Adding to his problems are attacks from the rival Zetas gang, which has engaged in a spate of tit-for-tat killings with the Sinaloa cartel that have spread onto his territory.
If Guzman is caught, it could unleash a bloody scramble for power before the election, said Jose Luis Pineyro, a security expert at Mexico’s Autonomous Metropolitan University.
“He is said to have influence in five continents,” he said. “It would have repercussions outside Mexico and America.”
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix; Editing by Eric Beech