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posted: 3/4/2014 5:01 AM

Mexicans' skepticism fuels legend of El Chapo

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U.S. officials want to extradite the notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who was captured last month by Mexican marines and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

Sounds like a fine idea. The 56-year-old leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel was arrested before, in 1993, and sentenced to 20 years in a maximum-security prison in the Mexican state of Jalisco. He escaped in 2001 by hiding in a laundry cart after bribing guards to look the other way. Perhaps that will happen again.

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But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Before we talk of extradition, shouldn't we make sure that the man in custody in Mexico is really Guzman? A lot of Mexicans don't believe he is.

Should they take the word of the Mexican government? After all, Mexico can be a house of mirrors. No one distrusts that government more than the governed, and with good cause. In the last 100 years, Mexico has deceived, abused, looted, oppressed and mistreated those who it is supposed to serve.

The only Mexicans whom the government does a good job of serving are the wealthy and powerful -- people like Guzman, whose nickname means "the short one." The man dubbed "the world's most powerful drug trafficker" is 5-feet-6. But he has a big wallet; his net worth has been estimated by Forbes to be close to $1 billion.

In a country where people make $6 or $7 per day, that kind of money doesn't just open doors. It knocks them down. No wonder the citizens of Mexico have so little trust in their government when it tries to take down such powerful and shadowy figures.

Now that distrust has taken a bizarre turn. Mexicans are taking their skepticism to social media, YouTube and underground drug culture websites. Once word got out about the arrest of El Chapo, Facebook and Twitter went loco. Mexicans are a social people, and they devour social media. This is their town square, where they have been gathering to express doubts that the man in custody is really Guzman.

Within days of the arrest, a story circulated suggesting the individual seen being led away by authorities was really someone who had been hired by the Mexican government to play the role of El Chapo, in order to fool people into thinking that the fugitive was in custody when he was still at large. Many people -- judging from their comments on social media -- found the decoy theory entirely plausible.

Look at the circumstances of the takedown, they said. With enormous resources, and a security detail fit for a head of state, it doesn't make sense that Guzman would be captured in a modest condo in the Pacific coastal town of Mazatlan without a single shot being fired. According to media reports, the digs included "cheap and unglamorous furnishings" with little food or liquor. Is this the way a billionaire travels?

Besides a long-standing distrust of their government and the fact that Mexico is the land of conspiracies, another factor is at play: Many Mexicans might be reluctant to surrender their grip on a larger-than-life legend. El Chapo has been immortalized in everything from books to documentaries to corridos (Mexican folk songs). As has been reported by U.S. media outlets, Guzman is revered by many as a south of the border version of Robin Hood.

Would such a person have been arrested so easily? One expects more for a folk hero.

Never mind Robin Hood. With his air of mystery, Guzman is more comparable to another Joaquin -- Joaquin Murrieta. The 19th-century California bandit and social avenger won followers by standing up to a brazen land grab inspired by Manifest Destiny. Like Guzman, Murrieta had a price on his head. It was $1,000, which compares poorly to the $7 million that the U.S. and Mexican governments offered for tips leading to the capture of El Chapo. And when Murrieta was killed by a posse of California frontier lawmen in 1853, the skepticism persisted for decades that the whole thing was a hoax and that authorities had gotten the wrong man.

The same skepticism is raging today in Mexico, where people will be having this debate for years to come. The legend of El Chapo lives on.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

© 2014, The Washington Post Writers Group

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