Countering the Myth of El Chapo in Merced

January 23, 2016 /




By Jesse Ornelas

Photo via Flikr


Editor’s Note:  Notorious drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman shocked the world when he escaped from a maximum security prison in Mexico on July 11, 2015. After months of an intensive manhunt, he was finally recaptured by Mexican authorities on January 8, 2016.  Branded a ‘Robin Hood’ like figure by many sympathizers, Jesse Ornelas, a local Brown Beret and community activist, explains why idolizing figures like El Chapo is detrimental to our youth and our community.


In his recent interview with Sean Penn for Rolling Stone, Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán was asked how he first got involved in the drug business. El Chapo, as Guzmán is known, recalled his childhood in rural Sinaloa, Mexico, where “the only way to have money to buy food, to survive,” was to grow poppy and marijuana.

When I read that statement, my first thought was that El Chapo could be from Merced.

It is no secret that youth in our county have very limited resources at their disposal, and that crime and other illicit activities are abundant. Youth unemployment here is worse than almost anywhere else in the state. According to, around 40 percent of youth in Merced county live below the poverty line. Merced also has one of the state’s highest felony arrest rates for juveniles, at 10.5 percent per 1000, well over the state average of 6.8 percent.

That sense of desperation and lack of opportunity has fueled the outsized influence that figures like El Chapo has had on young people here and across the Valley.

In February of 2014, afters years of eluding authorities, Mexico’s most infamous drug lord was captured. Yet less than a year later, El Chapo used his money, power and influence to escape from a maximum security prison in Mexico. He was arrested again earlier this month. But during his time as a fugitive El Chapo peaked in popularity and quickly became a pop culture icon.

Today his image can be seen on T-shirts and telenovelas, while numerous narco corridos — ballads celebrating Mexico’s outlaw culture — play on radios throughout the Central Valley, adding to the myth of El Chapo.

The reality is far less glamorous.

The Central Valley has long been known as a major thoroughfare used by drug traffickers. A 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Justice noted that cartels use the Valley to “operate national- and regional-level transshipment and distribution operations” for methamphetamine and other narcotics.  

In December of that same year, news broke that local law enforcement was going after the La Familia Michoacana cartel, which had reportedly become active in Madera, Merced, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin Counties.

Today, drug use and drug addiction remain serious challenges for youth in Merced County, which has two major veins that run through it, Highway 99 and Interstate 5. These routes are utilized by drug cartels, and as a result, drugs come through Merced on a daily basis.

Drug arrest rates in Merced have increased over the last ten years.  A 2010 study also found that the county’s rates have continuously been higher than the state average each year.  

Regrettably, too many of our youth are influenced a great deal by people like El Chapo. Leaders of drug cartels have slowly become fixtures on social media, and to some, are perceived as role models. Youth are attracted to the false belief that trafficking drugs is the only way out of poverty or the “hood.”

With pop culture romanticizing drug king pins, a shortage of positive influences, and a lack of adequate resources, Merced youth are ripe pickings for the kind of the negative influences that come into our region.

The only way to help counter this disturbing trend is to make sure that we, as the older generation, pay attention to our youth and make ourselves accessible to them. We need to create more resources and opportunities for our young people to thrive. Most importantly, we have to invest in our youth so that they leave behind the notion that the only way out of poverty is to try and live up the false legend of El Chapo.

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