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Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican navy marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
CULIACAN, Mexico — Sinaloa state authorities said on Thursday they are investigating who organized a march in which hundreds demanded the release of cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, a display of public support for crime boss in a state that many say he controls.
Gov. Mario Lopez Valdez told Televisa that officials suspect Guzman’s family and friends, and there are also rumors that protesters were paid and given food and drink, a common practice in Mexico.
“We don’t know at this time, but the investigation should reveal that,” Lopez said.
Hundreds of people marched Wednesday night demanding that Mexican authorities free the boss of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel. Many said he provides 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, the capital of Sinaloa state, which is the cartel’s bastion.
Demonstrators also said they opposed any attempt to extradite Guzman to the U.S., where he faces several drug-trafficking charges in different states.
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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 traveled 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 inspire folk songs and books and are 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 provides a boost for their agricultural state. Experts say Guzman’s arrest won’t slow the Sinaloa cartel, but many people are anxious the area’s economy may be disrupted.
“El Chapo” is widely considered the world’s most powerful drug lord. In rulings Tuesday, two federal judges said he will have to stand trial on separate drug-trafficking and organized-crime charges in Mexico. The Attorney General’s Office said Wednesday he also faces organized-crime charges in six other cases in four Mexican states and in Mexico City.
Guzman, who escaped from a western Mexico prison in 2001, is to remain in Mexico’s highest-security prison. The government has said he will not soon be extradited to the U.S., where Guzman has been indicted in California, New York and other states.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury Department announced Thursday that it is imposing financial penalties against seven people and 10 businesses accused of having ties to Guzman’s cartel.
The Office of Foreign Asset Control said it’s penalizing Hugo Cuellar Hurtado and five relatives for their alleged support of the cartel.
The government says Cuellar has been a drug trafficker for decades and worked for Colombia’s infamous Medellin cartel before supplying Guzman’s gang with cocaine in the late 1990s.
The U.S. also is penalizing Cuellar’s asset manager in Colombia, four companies in Mexico and six in Colombia.
Guzman and other Sinaloa bosses already were under sanctions through the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act.