Hundreds march for drug lord's freedom

UNDER ARREST: Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
UNDER ARREST: Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

Not everyone is happy over the capture of drug lord Joaquin ''El Chapo'' Guzman.

Hundreds of people marched on the streets of Culican, Mexico, on Wednesday (NZT Thursday) demanding that Mexican authorities free the boss of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel. Many said he provided needed jobs in poor mountain areas.

Norteno musicians played trumpets while high school students in uniforms held up signs reading: ''We want Chapo free'' and ''We Love Chapo'' as they paraded in Culiacan, state capital of Sinaloa state, which was the cartel's bastion.  

Demonstrators also said they opposed any attempt to extradite Guzman to the US, where he faced several drug-trafficking charges in different states.

Police officers tried to scatter the protest, and a few of the demonstrators began throwing water bottles at them as the march broke up. Officers responded with tear gas and took some protesters into custody.

''We support Chapo Guzman because he is the one who gives us jobs and helps out in the mountains,'' said Pedro Ramirez, who said he travelled in a group of 300 from Badiraguato, a town in the Sierra Madre where Guzman was born poor 56 years ago.

It was a rare display even in a country where drug lords inspired folk songs and books and were looked up to by young men in rural areas.

In December 2010, about 100 people marched through the state capital of Michoacan to show support for the chief of La Familia cartel, who had just been killed during two days of battles with federal police.

Wednesday's relatively large turnout may have to do with the uncertainty felt by Sinaloans over the future of the multibillion-dollar illegal drug business, which provided a boost for their agricultural state.

Experts said Guzman's arrest wouldn't slow the Sinaloa cartel, but many people were anxious the area's economy may be disrupted.

''El Chapo'' was widely considered the world's most powerful drug lord. In rulings this week, two US federal judges said he would have to stand trial on separate drug-trafficking and organised-crime charges in Mexico.

The US Attorney General's Office said Wednesday (NZT Thursday) he also faced organised-crime charges in six other cases in four Mexican states and in Mexico City.

Guzman, who escaped from a western Mexico prison in 2001, was to remain in Mexico's highest-security prison. The government has said he would not soon be extradited to the US, where Guzman has been indicted in California, New York and other states.

Earlier Wednesday, the self-described ''assistant'' to Guzman was charged with possessing illegal weapons when he was captured this weekend with his boss, the Attorney General's Office said.

US officials have said that intelligence about the suspect, Carlos Manuel Hoo Ramirez, was key in leading Mexican marines to a condominium in the Pacific Coast city of Mazatlan where Guzman's years as fugitive came to an end Saturday.   

The marines raided the condo and caught Hoo Ramirez, also known as ''Condor,'' with two rifles, two handguns, ammunition and a grenade launcher.   

Hoo Ramirez told authorities he had been working as an assistant to Guzman for three years, said an official, who agreed to discuss the suspect's status only if not quoted by name because he was not authorised to speak to the press. US law enforcement has said he was Guzman's chief of communications.  

Officials in the US say a cellphone found February 16 at a house Guzman had been using in the Sinaloa state capital of Culiacan belonged to Hoo Ramirez.

Other arrests followed the phone discovery, and those detentions provided clues to the whereabouts of Guzman in Mazatlan.

Guzman was also with his 20-something former beauty queen wife and their twin toddlers. She was let go because there were no charges pending against her.