MEXICO CITY — Was it Elvis? How about D.B. Cooper? Or could it have been Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the world’s most wanted man?
Supposed sightings of the fugitive Mexican drug boss are growing in frequency, adding to his legend. The latest swirl of rumors erupted Thursday night, when Guatemala’s interior minister said a victim of a firefight in that country resembled Guzman, the head of the Sinaloa cartel.
On Friday, Guatemala did a U-turn. Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez said he couldn’t even confirm that a firefight had occurred in the remote Peten region, much less that Guzman was dead.
“I apologize if there was a misunderstanding,” Lopez told Guatemala’s Emisoras Unidas radio network.
It marked another false alarm for a fugitive listed by Forbes as having a $1 billion fortune – with $7 million in bounties on his head. The Obama administration calls him “the most powerful drug trafficker in the world.”
Guzman hasn’t been seen since in public since early 2001, when he escaped from a Jalisco, Mexico, prison in a laundry basket and slipped away from a 20-year jail term. Since then, he’s built the Sinaloa cartel into a worldwide criminal enterprise with tentacles in 48 countries in Europe, Asia, Australia and throughout the Americas.
The U.S. government has offered $5 million for a tip that leads to his capture (the tip line is email@example.com) and the Mexican government has put up another $2 million.
Only dated photos of Guzman exist. The most widely circulated one was taken in a rainy prison yard more than a decade ago.
Drug lords in Mexico commonly undergo plastic surgery to alter their appearances, and no one seems to know what the once-stocky 5-foot-8 Guzman might look like today.
Rumors abound of his whereabouts. The drug lord, whose age may be 55 or 58, is from the town of Badiraguato in Sinaloa state, where loyalty to him is strong and visitors rarely get past gunmen. His comings and goings are the stuff of legend.
An anti-drug squad came within hours of capturing Guzman last February in a mansion in Los Cabos on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, arresting a prostitute and Guzman’s pilot, a Mexican prosecutor later said. But even that story has its doubters. The newspaper El Universal reported last week that it could find no written documentation that such a police raid had occurred.
Lopez blamed the mingling of fact and fiction for the latest false alarm.
“There’s always been rumors, or information, around Chapo: that he’s entered Guatemala, that he went to Honduras, that he’s back in Guatemala, that he went home to Mexico,” Lopez said.
In a separate interview with Mexico’s MVS Radio, Lopez admitted that the first word of a dead drug trafficker with a likeness to Guzman had come from news reports, not official sources.
Even so, the reports were so insistent that President Otto Perez Molina summoned a meeting of his Security Cabinet, the Guatemalan army’s First Brigade was mobilized to the hamlet of San Valentin in the Peten region and Mexico prepared DNA records to verify the identity of the supposed body, Lopez said.
Guzman already had been on the minds of newspaper readers in Guatemala. Prensa Libre this week published excerpts from an internal email of the Stratfor private security and analysis firm that were released by WikiLeaks.
"We believe that el Chapo is currently hiding in Peten, Guatemala, near the Mexican border,” the email from Feb. 24, 2010, read in part.
On the surface, such an analysis would be surprising. A bloody rival to Guzman’s Sinaloa cartel, Los Zetas, began moving into the relatively lawless Peten region of northern Guatemala in 2009 and had grown fairly entrenched there within a year. The Sinaloa cartel is thought to operate along Guatemala’s Pacific coast, on the other side of the country.