A major event for Mexicans and Americans, if not the entire hemisphere, occurred just after 6 a.m. this past Saturday. Mexican Marines, working with U.S. DEA agents, stormed a hotel-condominium building in Mazatlan and captured Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán without firing a single shot, scoring what could be a major victory in the war on drugs and, more important, the struggle for law and order in Mexico.

El Chapo is — or was — the notorious leader of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, a crime syndicate based in Guzmán’s home state whose tentacles stretch far beyond Mexico’s borders. The Sinaloas supply an estimated 25 to 45 percent of the drugs entering the United States.

In Chicago, the cartel’s main distribution hub in the States, 80 percent of marijuana, heroin, cocaine and meth bought on street corners can be traced back to El Chapo and his vast empire.

When I read the news of his capture Saturday morning, I was anxious to tell the guys in the kitchen where I work as a server. They’d already heard.

“Did you hear they captured El Chapo,” I asked in my broke-ass Spanish. “Yeah,” the dishwasher said, his eyes and mouth dropping simultaneously. “Agarraron mi compa.”

“They got him?” the sous-chef asked from behind the counter. “Gracias a Dios!”

I guess one man’s narco is another man’s hero. And it’s not just a Mexican thing.

After visiting a small Missouri farmhouse during his tour of the American frontier, Oscar Wilde wrote in a letter back home that “Americans are certainly great hero-worshippers, and always take their heroes from the criminal classes.”

The farmhouse was the birthplace of famed outlaw Jesse James, who when he died at the age of 34 in 1882 was already a household celebrity. Beginning in the 1870s kids grew up reading about how Jesse robbed the banks where rich industrialists kept their money and gave much of his loot to struggling farmers and poor families he met along the way.

None of it’s true of course. Jesse James and his gang robbed banks, stagecoaches and trains because they could and they wanted the money for themselves. But at a time when the nation’s great robber barons lived off the fat of the American hog while the rest of the country lived off next to nothing, Jesse’s exploits were viewed as a form of resistance against an unfair system.

He became America’s Robin Hood, and he wasn’t the last.

Al Capone’s philanthropy made him a beloved figure among much of Chicago’s citizens, even while the Chicago Crime Commission labeled him “Public Enemy No. 1.”

John Dillinger’s own bank robberies and shootouts with agents, as well as those of Bonnie and Clyde, were romanticized by an enthralled public during the early years of the Great Depression.

When it comes to hero worship south of the border, names like Zapata and Villa come to mind. Emiliano Zapata and Francisco “Pancho” Villa were caudillos, or local strongmen, who ruled the southern and northeastern parts of Mexico, respectively, during the Mexican Revolution.

Gen. Villa (left) sits in the presidential chair next to Gen. Zapata (right) during their tense meeting in December 1914

Gen. Villa (center left) sits in the presidential chair next to Gen. Zapata (center right) during their tense meeting in December 1914
[Photo: Wikimedia Commons}

Today they’re celebrated as revolutionaries, men who fought against a corrupt government for the right of self-determination. But had things turned out differently, had Gen. Victoriano Huerta held off Venustiano Carranza in 1914, they might be remembered today as thugs, or worse.

Now while I hesitate to call the Villistas and the Zapatistas cartels, since the word has taken on an exclusive meaning lately, if we look at the word in its original, pre-Sinaloa sense — a diverse group of people with a common cause — you could safely say that what Villa and Zapata did after 1910 is not much different than what El Chapo has done since the 1980s, only that Villa and Zapata didn’t sell (illegal) drugs. Everything else is the same, really: the kidnappings, the killing of innocents, the killing of government officials — the overall use of terror and force to preserve their power and influence, and even expand it.

And before you start writing your angry comments, let me just say that if it’s possible to be a non-Mexican Zapatista, I’m one.

But there’s no escaping that what the two men were after was power, whether it was power for the people, in Zapata’s case, or unbounded power, in Villa’s.

What El Chapo wanted was power too, and he was willing to take out anyone who kept him from obtaining it.

Yes, he’s responsible for the killing of countless government officials on both sides of the border and elsewhere, but in his eyes, and in the eyes of much of the Mexican public, government agents are just as involved in the illicit drug trade as the cartels are. At times they’ve been found to be working in close cooperation with each other.

So a violent struggle between criminal gangs and corrupt officials is no simple matter of evil versus the good. It’s a battle between two equally guilty factions, between two cartels, which is how many Mexican voters view the Institutional Revolutionary Party that Pres. Enrique Peña Nieto belongs to.

And where the government is corrupt, notorious criminals are transformed into heroes of the resistance.

When I told my buddies in the kitchen about El Chapo’s capture and saw the look of utter depletion that draped half of their faces, I fully understood that El Chapo was more than Public Enemy No. 1. For the average Mexican trying to scratch out a better life for himself and his loved ones, El Chapo is a symbol of the struggle against an unfair system, of overcoming the odds, defying a government of thugs and taking control of your own destiny.

So El Chapo’s capture on Saturday won’t amount to much in the end. Not only has his second-in-command, Ismael Zambada García, been poised to take control of the Sinaloas for some time, El Chapo’s arrest hasn’t taken an ounce away from his legend. There are still little boys and girls who want to grow up to defy the government and make money for themselves and their families any way they can, just like El Chapo.

Everybody wants to be Robin Hood.

[Photo: Wikimedia Commons]

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