With El Chapo’s fate in balance, his kin keep the faith back home

With the trial of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán generating headlines in the US, Phoebe Eaton flew to Culiácan, the capital of Mexico’s Sinaloa state and — in the words of Guzman’s arresting DEA agent — “the lions’ den of the most powerful cartel in the world.” Looking for his family and for answers, she found them, making the trek into the Sierra Madre, past cartel checkpoints manned by kids cradling AK-47s and up to El Chapo’s remote hometown hideaway, La Tuna, spending Christmas in the town the Sinaloa drug-cartel jefe returned to again and again. Here is an excerpt from her Kindle Single trilogy, “In the Thrall of the Mountain King,” the first book of which is available on Amazon.com Monday as the jury begins deliberations to decide El Chapo’s fate:

It was Christmas Eve in tiny La Tuna, high in Mexico’s Sierra Madre, and Doña Consuelo Guzmán Loera, 90, had company under the arches of the gorgeous pink rancho her rich and successful oldest child built for her. Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the son she calls “mi rey,” my king, would not be joining; he was stuck in New York City, on trial for being the alleged leader of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Chapo’s sisters Armida and Bernarda had made the five-hour drive from the city of Culiácan to buck their mother’s spirits. Doña Consuelo really wanted to be in New York to support her son, but, “I can barely walk,” she was saying in her throaty purr.

Her bodyguard had fetched me in the pickup truck that went back and forth from her gated, secured compound to the white-washed chapel 200 yards away that Chapo, now 61, had erected for her use in 1989. Where they had been praying lately “for the hearts of the judge and jury to be touched and show that God is merciful,” a member tells me, elaborating: “After all, God was put here to save the black sheep.”

“So what do you think of El Señor?” Bernarda is asking, a glint in her otherwise doleful eyes. The women of the house were starved for news of the son whose achievement was breathtaking if true, that he had run a $14 billion empire while on the lam, out of pine shacks with plastic folding chairs where the phone service went down when it rained.

Doña Consuelo says that in their twice-monthly phone conversations, Chapo is always checking the status of a highway now going in just below her house. Not that the region is ready for the narcoturistas now cramming into Colombia; La Tuna always feels like the little town that doesn’t want your visit. Two clearly cartel checkpoints remain en route, the first manned by kids in camouflage with AK-47s.

Years ago, Chapo commissioned a statue for the entrance to La Tuna, a seeming parody of the historic, heroic stiffs manfully greeting drivers on the roads into bigger townships. Only the subject here was Chapo’s chief opium-gum buyer, Juan Gutiérrez Ortega, a k a “Don Juan,” a k a “El Viejito” (the Old Man), a k a “El Comandante.” The statue’s inscription credited El Comandante with bringing the church and a school and a medical clinic to the town along with drinking water, electrification and paved roads. But really, it was Chapo who did these things. Of all her children, “he’s the joker,” his mother tells me, the soldiers finally carting the statue off to nobody’s sure where or remembers quite when.

“So you think he’s handsome? Well, he’s very well dressed now.” Bernarda’s trying to poke me to tell Doña that Chapo makes an OK first impression at court, given his standing as most violent this-and-that in the world press.

“People are praying for him,” insists sister Armida.

Chapo’s birthplace contains two factions: those who call themselves “Christians” and those who don’t dare (given what they’ve got growing elsewhere on the mountainside). Often, wives are Christians praying for narcotráfico husbands who are not. A tenet of Doña Consuelo’s temple is no alcohol. There’s no dancing. No swearing. Men need to dress properly, “and not like a cholo or a macho man,” a member tells me. Women must wear skirts — and no gold or silver, though a modest little gold-tone watch ticks on Doña’s wrist.

In the late 80s, around the time Chapo’s farmer-father, Don Emilio, died at age 58 and his son was off involving himself in the most dangerous line of work in the world, evangelical missionaries arrived here in the hills bringing the comforts of Christ to Doña Consuelo and his sisters.

Chapo omits any mention of his father in a widely seen 17-minute confessional video he made for Mexican actress Kate del Castillo and Sean Penn in 2016. He thought it would get him admitted to Hollywood. As a sizzle reel airing on Rolling Stone’s Web site, it certainly got people’s attention.

Chapo Guzmán entered this world the star of his own telenovela. His Wikipedia entry (surely tampered with by zealot members of Doña’s Pentecostal Apostólica de la Fe en Cristo Jesús denomination) places Chapo’s birthday as Dec. 25 — the same as Jesucristo himself. His own mother’s pregnancy was almost as fraught.

Doña Consuelo reveals how, when she was going to have Chapo, Don Emilio left her for another woman. (The woman was from the next town over.)

But when Chapo arrives on April 4, 1957, Emilio finds his conscience, and Consuelo can breathe again. There would be seven more children, though little money to support them. Her daughters laugh it off as one of those stories she’s been telling for years.

Interviewed for Julio Scherer’s book, “Máxima Seguridad,” Chapo’s lover in the Puente Grande prison, Zulema Hernández, said her impression was that Chapo’s childhood was “something he wanted to forget … that held him prisoner every moment of his life.”

Did Chapo’s father beat him, as some have maintained? “No, hombre. No, man!” says Bernarda.

“I was the one who hit him,” Doña Consuelo says, jumping in. (But for the usual kind of mischief, Bernarda clarifies.)

In the Rolling Stone video, Chapo cites his mother as the hard worker, supporting the family. She baked bread and made enchiladas sold at town meetings and door to door, and “he’s the one who helped her,” says Bernarda, calling what they had a “business partnership.”

Her father “was a little bird. He was passive,” Armida insists. “He couldn’t spank anyone. Once he took off his belt, and he just laughed.”

Others in town sensed the father was lazy, throwing his seed aimlessly at the soil and just waiting and waiting with nothing happening. Passers-by would spot him asleep on some big rock. Draw conclusions. Did he drink? It’s alleged. That and some whoring in Cosalá where he’d go to sell product, son Chapo in tow.

Long ago, Chapo decided he wanted more than the limited life that had been laid out for him, even if, “he learned to read and write poorly,” says his mother.

He may be the only Forbes billionaire who stopped school at third grade. Looking over his crispy-curl handwriting, one sees he taught himself script. There were schoolbooks left behind in his cell in Puente Grande, where he was corked in a bottle from 1993 to 2001.

‘He arrives … like a little lamb, and he kneels. And he knows God has performed miracles because he has felt it, and he has lived it.’

The name Joaquín, he took that in his early 20s. His real name is Archivaldo, according to his mother. Archivaldo was a brother of hers who died young, Bernarda explains. The family has no idea where Chapo got Joaquín. Every witness at the trial who ever ran or worked for a cartel used a fake name or two. He was only too happy to reinvent.

Her faith forbids a lot, but when Doña Consuelo speaks of Chapo, it’s with tender indulgence. He was listed as Catholic in his Altiplano prison registration from just a few years ago. He has yet to be baptized in her church. Why won’t he convert?

“God is the one who sets the moment. When you least expect it, the Lord may touch him,” Consuelo tells me.

Bernarda and her mother have a gift. They speak in tongues. And it’s Pastor Joel at the church who plays interpreter.

It was a few days before Christmas, and I was with Bernarda in her mother’s house in Culiácan. I wondered if the locals Bernarda meets are ever scared when they discover Chapo is her brother.

“On the contrary,” she said. Sinaloan drug lord Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo had family members kidnapped, but Bernarda uses no guards, doesn’t feel the need, her status is that protected.

Bernarda told a story. In June, she said, for almost a week, “I’d been feeling in my heart someone saying, ‘I’m working on your brother’s file.’ ” She dropped her doctor husband off at his office, but coming home in the car, “the Holy Spirit took me over, and I started speaking in tongues.”

She pulled over.

“And the Lord said he was working on Chapo’s file. And not many months passed when it was announced several charges were dropped.”

A week after Chapo escaped from maximum-security Altiplano in 2015, he turned up at Mom’s. Within 10 minutes, they were seen walking over to the temple — before he left to go meet with his guys up at his house, El Cielo (“Heaven”), so high above the town all one sees below is a stand of cypress trees, a crown of thorns.

“It’s the first thing he does when he’s over there,” Bernarda was insisting. Chapo goes to church. “No, man, he arrives like a corderito, like a little lamb, and he kneels.

“And he knows God has performed miracles because he has felt it and he has lived it.”

Like, what miracles?

“He’s alive,” said Bernarda. That’s the biggest.

It’s easy to dismiss some of this as hoodoo, but there’s no arguing this point. Of the persons whose pictures flash across the screen at the courthouse who aren’t in jail, many died miserably, perforated with tantas balas, so many bullets.

There is evidence Chapo feels chosen. When he narrowly escapes 2012’s Cabo San Lucas raid, his wife, Emma Coronel, texts him, “So good that you were able to get out. So good that God always keeps you in his care.”

Does Chapo speak in tongues? “I think he has,” Bernarda told me. There’s some signature Pentecostal healing-hand work, too. “Many brothers who are pastors who have laid hands on him and prayed for him, and with a contrite heart, that’s when he cries.”

He would cry with his family when they visited him at Altiplano, and they spoke to him of God. A mysterious female in a priest collar affiliated with this denomination (and in a skirt, always) showed up every day at the Brooklyn courthouse. Quietly whispering psalms. During testimony from Vicente Zambada, son of the Sinaloa Cartel’s actual head, Mayo Zambada, and a real charmer, she sat muttering, “Why don’t they just let them all go?”

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In that twice-monthly 15 minutes Chapo gets with his mother and Bernarda on the phone, what he won’t speak about is the trial: “He says, ‘Tell all the brothers to pray a lot for everything to come out well because in January the trial will be over.’ ”

It’s hard to say just what Chapo believes, or if his is a lucky-charm faith. A cooperating witness told prosecutors he had seen Chapo consulting with a “witch doctor” from whom he obtained snake oils. In the summer, Chapo had his attorney Jeffrey Lichtman’s law clerk schooling him in the Torah so he could pass a random three-question test and qualify for the better-quality kosher meals at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center. As a practicing Jew.

If Chapo were here tonight, he’d be eating in the kitchen with us, off the same polystyrene party plates with dividers separating the frijoles puerca from the macaroni salad and barbacoa Bernarda made herself. The help in the room just next door would be fed from the same industrial-size pozole pots on the stove. His mother would be seated at the head of the table, her doting, devoted son on her left instead of the obvious bodyguard I’m told instead is “a cousin.”

“I asked Chapo why he had to kill people,” recalled one former lieutenant on the stand. “And he said, ‘Either your mom’s going to cry or their mom’s going to cry.’ ”

Just after midnight, it was now Chapo’s Wikipedia birthday, and one of La Tuna’s farmers was looking up at the sky where a gibbous moon had a rare halo, a bull’s eye hovering right over the town and by tradition, an ill omen. Stormy times ahead.

But Chapo Guzmán’s clan was hopeful, fans of the parable from Acts where Pedro is in jail, and outside the brothers and sisters are praying for him until the Angel of the Lord shows up, unlocking one door after another and telling Pedro, Let’s go.

“For God, nothing is impossible,” is how Bernarda ends the story.

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