Small Wars Journal

Social Banditry and the Public Persona of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán

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Abstract: This article reviews nine key insights into social banditry originally described by Eric Hobsbawm and examines their applicability regarding Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel. Because some of Mexico’s organized crime leaders aim to be viewed as social bandits, and visit Guatemala and the Mexico-Guatemala border region to evade authorities, the article focuses on particularities of those culture zones in the potential application of three primary strategies of information operations to contest a social bandit’s prestige: emphasizing distance between the social bandit and the local poor, portraying collusion of the social bandit with local authorities and opposition to federal authorities, and emphasizing closeness between federal power and the local poor. A criminal organization leader who desires the prestige of social banditry would have cause to oppose each strategy. The analysis predicts that the first two strategies are more realistic, potentially more important strategically, and are more likely to become intensely contested through Information Operations, within culture areas of Guatemala and the Mexico-Guatemala border region.

Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo”

In late February 2013, multiple reports originating in Guatemalan, Mexican, and American news media claimed that Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán, alias “El Chapo”, was killed in a shootout near the Mexico-Guatemala border. This turned out to be the latest of numerous false reports of his capture or death.[1] It appears Guzmán is alive and his power remains unparalleled within Mexico’s Drug War.[2]

The nature of that power is distinctive in its magnitude, as well as the prestige associated with his persona.[3] In terms of magnitude, he has far surpassed Al Capone and Pablo Escobar to become the most powerful crime lord in history.[4] In this sense, his influence is rivaled primarily by Miguel Treviño (alias, “Z-40”), leader of Los Zetas, the most powerful transnational criminal organization opposing Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel. However, Guzmán’s prestige is distinguishable from that of any other Mexican crime lord in the extent to which his persona is perceived as a heroic champion of Mexico’s poor. Conversely, Treviño is widely viewed as a sadistic narco-terrorist. The difference in public perception is striking because Guzmán and the Sinaloa Cartel draw upon the same methods that have blackened the reputation of Treviño and Los Zetas, including bribery, murder, torture, terror tactics, and targeting of enemies’ families.

The Importance of Information Operations in Mexico’s Drug War

It has been claimed that some of Mexico’s organized criminals use information operations to manage their public images as social bandits (to be discussed shortly), and that Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán has been particularly successful in that regard.[5] The position taken here is that the comparison of Guzmán’s prestige to social banditry is valid, and additionally, that the perception of social banditry has not been perfectly established. While commonalities between Guzmán’s persona and that of the social bandit are important, notable divergences also exist. Taken together, these represent key issues around which his valorized persona is, or may be, contested. A systematic, though necessarily brief, comparison between them will illuminate implications regarding information operations for and against the Guzmán and the Sinaloa Cartel. Finally, the article will emphasize how peculiarities of the Mexico-Guatemala border region, where Guzmán is believed to visit frequently,[6] [7] may inflect information operations in those culture areas.

There exists a paradox when a crime lord such as Joaquín Guzmán (whose heroism is more likely to be acknowledged in Western Mexico) approaches the Mexico-Guatemala border. His ability to evade capture from either Mexican or Guatemalan authorities is augmented, while his prestige is comparatively diminished among local populations. Additionally, arch-rivals Los Zetas are more deeply entrenched in Guatemala and the border region. The paradox can be resolved through many possible outcomes, including Guzmán’s persona achieving increased prestige in or near Guatemala, his persona becoming demonized in that region, the Sinaloa Cartel eclipsing Los Zetas as Guatemala’s dominant criminal organization, or his leaving Guatemala and the border region by will, capture, or death. As several of these possibilities can be facilitated or complicated with carefully conceived information operations, it will become especially important to consider how this could develop should such a campaign intensify within Guatemala.

Social Banditry

Social Banditry is distinguishable from other forms of banditry by a perceived relationship between the bandit (and his organization) with those who are socially (and often geographically) distant from state power. It symbolizes a special type of protest and rebellion on behalf of the impoverished peasantry.[8] Unlike typical banditry, robbery of the social bandit becomes interpreted by admirers as contributing to the redistribution of wealth to those who have been unjustly impoverished.[9]  The social bandit’s killing, theft, and other forms of criminality are not directed toward the peasantry, with whom he identifies and comes to represent symbolically through using tools available to them (including strength, bravery, cunning, and determination) to expropriate in the service of a superordinate cause in the people’s interest.[10] Social banditry can be found in practically any society with disenfranchised peasantry. English-speakers are most familiar with it through the mythology of Robin Hood. Mexico’s extensive tradition of social banditry has produced national heroes such as Pancho Villa, fictional heroes such as Zorro, and religious icons such as the narco-saint Jesus Malverde, whose cult is loosely affiliated with the Sinaloa Cartel.[11]

Eric Hobsbawm[12] has identified nine key aspects of a noble robber’s public image (as opposed to the true man) regarding his relations with the peasants who aspire for solidarity and identity. While Joaquín Guzmán is regarded by some Mexicans as usurping from the rich to give to the poor, he is envisioned more specifically as a cunning, ruthless, specifically Mexican international criminal entrepreneur who creates jobs for the poor and distributes considerable bribes to the rich while usurping from criminal rivals. Nonetheless, the observation that crime lords such as Guzmán attempt to bolster their public images with the prestige of social banditry has merit. To the extent that Guzmán wishes to consolidate the benefits of association with the romanticism of social banditry, and to the extent to which Mexican or Guatemalan state authorities and criminal rivals intend to prevent this, Hobsbawm’s key observations offer a framework to highlight essential aspects of Guzmán’s persona likely to be contested between the Sinaloa Cartel and Guzmán’s enemies within Guatemala and the Mexico-Guatemala border region. These implications may also be relevant in other Central American nations, particularly Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, where the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas are expanding to compete for impunity in drug production and trafficking, weapons trafficking, human smuggling, kidnapping, extortion, prostitution, murder-for-hire, petroleum theft, money laundering, and other sources of profit-generation.

  1. The Social Bandit’s career begins as a victim of injustice, or persecution by authorities for acts that they, though not the local people, view as criminal. Guzmán’s origin is widely seen within Mexico as a rags to riches story originating in Mexico’s Sierra Madres, a region known for its lawlessness, as well as its capacity for drug production and distribution. While Mexican and U.S. authorities may consider those drugs illegal, desperately poor local populations do not share the sentiment. That Guzmán is regarded as achieving tremendous wealth and power through a business that is illegal according to federal and state authorities but sanctioned according to local norms works in his favor in Western Mexico. Guatemala needs the job creation his organization would bring, but remains more ambivalent about drug trade due to escalating patterns of addiction in local populations.
  2. The Social Bandit rights wrongs. Even within Mexico, Guzmán is perceived as driven more by expansionistic ambition and revenge than a desire to right wrongs. However, enemy operatives (as well as his own) are frequently vicious and sociopathic even when not following orders. The Sinaloa Cartel’s previous efforts to frame violence against enemies as retaliatory justice have been intermittent, and without the consistency required for effective message communication. The potential to consolidate his image through more consistent applications of this strategy is far from exhausted in Western Mexico. Many Guatemalans are willing prospects for employment from a Mexican criminal organization, although they (like most Central Americans) would not expect any Mexican power-broker to right wrongs against them in Mexico, much less in their nations of origin.
  3. The Social Bandit takes from the rich to give to the poor. This generality is most applicable to Guzmán’s ability to provide jobs to poverty-stricken Mexicans through lucrative drug trade with self-destructive gringos (sometimes construed within Mexico’s popular imagination as “the rich”). Trade, however, is quite different from the cause-driven expropriation typical of social banditry. Another complication is Guzmán’s infamous readiness to spend vast sums of money upon bribes – the larger amounts typically going to those who wield state power, including many who are already wealthy. Poverty is even worse in Guatemala, where job creation may inspire a blind eye to the unsavory aspects of his organization. Again, Guzmán has not yet mounted a sustained campaign to convince average Guatemalans why the Sinaloa Cartel’s presence should be welcomed. Like in Mexico, the strategy of portraying oneself as taking from the rich and giving to Guatemala has yet to be fully exploited or discredited. Given the certainty of Guzmán’s money invigorating local economies, it is likely to become a point of greater contention.
  4. The Social Bandit never kills except in self-defense or just revenge. Within Mexico, Guzmán has a well known history of aggressing against former allies, including the Arellano-Félix Organization, the Juarez Cartel, and the Beltrán-LeyvaOrganization. Los Zetas have accused him of opportunistically breaking non-aggression pacts. He is not typically regarded as killing only in cases of self-defense or just revenge. Though many drug war killings could potentially be framed as self-defensive or retaliatory in some sense, the Sinaloa Cartel has attempted this only intermittently. Even on occasions when Guzmán’s own children have been murdered, the Sinaloa Cartel has not responded with concerted efforts to garner the public’s support to legitimize violence, though it would have been accepted by most fathers as a sensible motive for lethal retaliation. In Mexico or Guatemala, the Sinaloa Cartel would need to consistently and convincingly communicate extenuating circumstances to local populations to reverse that trend.
  5. The Social Bandit returns to his community as an honored citizen. In a certain sense he never leaves the community. This depends upon which community is the point of reference. It is more valid within Western Mexico, particularly in Sinaloa, where Guzmán’s power is based. It is not equally true along the gulf coast of Mexico, which is dominated by Los Zetas (an enemy organization) or the Gulf Cartel (a previous enemy and presently a tentative ally against Los Zetas). It is less valid in Central America, where local populations frequently experience discrimination and exploitation as migrants in Mexico. Notably, Guzmán has not always been welcomed as an honored citizen in Guatemala, where he was arrested in 1993.[13] While Guzmán may still be an honored citizen in some areas of Western Mexico, he would need to win over local Central American populations ready to perceive him as a Mexican land-owner – a social type typically presumed guilty until proven innocent of exploiting migrants from their societies.
  6. The Social Bandit is admired, helped, and supported by his people. Again, this is truer in Western Mexico, where his power-base is most secure. It is less true along the gulf coast or in Southern Mexico, where his safety is more dependent upon bribery, weapons, the integrity of his networks, and the quality of his operatives. Its applicability is more doubtful in Central America. The loyalty of Guatemalans to the Sinaloa Cartel is due almost entirely to a combination of their terror and his willingness to employ, bribe, and share profits, and not because he is perceived as a beloved champion of the people. Los Zetas have traditionally recruited more extensively than the Sinaloa Cartel from Guatemala, resulting in better connections among local authorities and criminal groups. While this makes it less likely for local populations to assist him out of sympathy, closer associations between Los Zetas and locally detested state authorities and criminals could be exploited to the Sinaloa Cartel’s favor.
  7. The Social Bandit dies invariably through treason because no decent member of the community would act against him. To date, Guzmán has used lethal violence and extraordinary cruelty against suspected betrayers, and on some occasions, their relatives. This has not typically corresponded with attempts to frame his enemies as indecent members of the community. In fact, there have been several occasions where former criminal partners or subordinates have acted against Guzmán after accusing him of betrayal, including members of the Arellano- Félix Organization (previously the Tijuana Cartel), the Beltrán-Leyvabrothers (who broke away to form a rival cartel), and certain operatives of Ignacio Coronel Villarreal (some of whom went on to establish the New Generation Cartel of Jalisco following his death). Guatemalans are more likely to be dissuaded from acting against the Sinaloa Cartel through bribery and terrorization than from the perception that anyone who acts against him is an indecent member of the local community. In Guatemala, as in Mexico, it doesn’t require much imagination to frame criminal rivals as indecent persons. This is another strategy that has yet to be further developed by Guzmán and his enemies. It is notable that Guatemalans have acted against him previously, such as when he was arrested there in 1993.
  8. The Social Bandit is invisible and invulnerable. The appearance of invulnerability against state and criminal enemies is an important component of his persona. Ongoing evasion from capture or death has demonstrated cleverness, resolve, and power that many find suggestive of de facto invulnerability. Invisibility is more disputable. His famed elusiveness is cast in relief against tales of public appearances, where enforcers confiscated telephones from all other patrons at restaurants while he ate, then paid their tabs upon his departure. Regardless of their veracity, most or all of such accounts supposedly took place in Mexico. The author is not aware of similar public displays of magnanimity in Guatemala. Another exception to invisibility was an interrogation disseminated in 2012 through social media[14] in which a man who resembles Guzmán gruffly interrogates a bound captive about enemy movements.[15] It is unknown where the interrogation took place. Guzmán’s most famed public appearance in Guatemala was against his will, when he was photographed in a trophy-like media event following his arrest there in 1993. However, his successful escape from prison in 2001 continues to bolster the image of de facto invulnerability.
  9. The Social Bandit is not the enemy of the king or emperor (the font of justice), but only against detested gentry, clergy, or other local authorities oppressing the poor and powerless. Guzmán’s power base requires, and has benefited from, his success corrupting and controlling the Mexican state and municipal authorities or killing those who cannot be manipulated. Municipal authorities he struggles to control (e.g., the Juarez police; the Tijuana police) tend to be those well infiltrated by other criminal organizations. His power is too great to be rivaled by any local landowner, clergy, or corrupt politician. In Mexico, only federal authorities have the resources needed to challenge the Sinaloa Cartel. Despite claims by Mexican authorities suggesting his capture is their top priority,[16] the Sinaloa Cartel may have infiltrated Mexico’s federal police and military more effectively than any other organization. Whether by infiltration, terrorization, or simply considered the lesser of two evils, it is widely speculated throughout Mexico that Mexican (and US) federal authorities do not pursue the Sinaloa Cartel with the same resolve as its arch-rivals Los Zetas. Nevertheless, this has not prevented Guzmán from publically accusing Mexican authorities of complicity with Los Zetas.[17] Such claims are impossible to prove, but at face value would appear credible to Mexicans who generally expect corruption and injustice from federal leadership. The situation is different in Guatemala, where Los Zetas probably have infiltrated Guatemalan state and municipal authorities more effectively than has the Sinaloa Cartel. To the extent the Guatemalan public sees their authorities as wielded by Los Zetas, there exists an opportunity for Guzmán to present himself as opposing local oppressors. The dissemination of claims such as Los Zetas slaughtering Central American migrants,[18] throwing them from moving trains for not paying tariffs,[19] and threatening a priest with death for speaking out against such abuses toward migrants,[20] [21] suggests the Sinaloa Cartel is exploring this strategy. Only consistent efforts over time will reveal its full potential for or against Guzmán in Guatemala.

Implications for Information Operations in Guatemala and the Mexico-Guatemala Border Region

The dependence of social banditry upon a specific geographic region, populace, and pattern of relations with state power yields three fundamental strategies through which that particular prestige of Guzmán’s public persona may be contested in Guatemala, or near the Mexico-Guatemala border.

Distance between the Social Bandit and the Common Poor

The first strategy is to emphasize distance between the social bandit and the common people, particularly the poor. This will likely become the most important domain of contention because of the possibility for Guzmán to mount a coherent plea to poverty-stricken Central Americans. Philanthropy is an important factor that separates a social bandit from other robbers and murderers. Like most Mexican crime lords, Guzmán almost certainly donates to local causes, including schools, parks, and social programs. He would merely need to make such information more clearly understood by the local population. State authorities can do little against this approach if the funding required for such services is unavailable from legitimate sources. An alternative would be to counter-balance images of philanthropy through disseminating verifiable incidents of the poor suffering within his sphere of influence. Unfortunately, not even Guzmán can solve Guatemala’s problems, and there will be greater potential for this counter-response on behalf of Mexican or Guatemalan authorities, or Los Zetas, none of whom want the Sinaloa Cartel further entrenched in Guatemala. Guzmán can and probably will use this strategy against Los Zetas[22] by continuing to disseminate stories of oppression, exploitation, extortion, rape, and murder of the local poor at their hands.

The fact that Guzmán wields considerable financial and geopolitical power makes his persona potentially vulnerable to apparent vigilantism and peasant rebellion against him. Repetitive and credible reports of social bandits rebelling against his own power, and eluding his efforts to control their homelands, could work in the favor of such results.

Another potential threat comes from the current trend of communal autodefense, whereby ostensibly normal Mexican citizenry are banding to combat organized criminals who are degrading public life. While some of these groups are sincere, there is cause to believe that many have been infiltrated (or even created) by those very organizations. One recent mass arrest resulted in accusations of a community group being infiltrated by the New Generation Cartel of Jalisco,[23] which recently broke its alliance with the Sinaloa Cartel. Similar mass arrests have resulted in accusations against the Knights Templar cartel.[24] It is likely other cartels (including the Sinaloa Cartel) also have infiltrated these groups as part of their ongoing effort to protect their own impunity and imperil their criminal rivals. Much of the propaganda that has been disseminated thus far under the ostensible guise of communal autodefense will not be effective against Guzmán or the Sinaloa Cartel because the persons who have been captured and “tried” at those public proceedings typically were accused and addressed as predacious individuals – that is, kidnappers, extortionists, rapists, killers, etc., rather than faithful operatives of a predacious organization or leader.

Closeness between State Power and the Common Poor

The second strategy that could potentially be used to counter a social bandit’s prestige would be to emphasize closeness between state power and its people, particularly the common poor. In the case of Guatemala, however, this approach is less realistic due to intense suspicion toward government corruption and ineptitude. Corruption may be worse in Guatemala than in Mexico, and Guatemalans may be more distrustful than Mexicans of their own state authorities. Guzmán would have the advantage here, as the Sinaloa Cartel merely needs to continually remind Guatemalans of what they already believe – that the authorities they normally distrust are now aligned with Los Zetas.

Collusion with Local Authorities and Opposition against State Authorities

The third strategy to counter a social bandit’s prestige is to emphasize his collusion with (corrupt) local authorities and his opposition against (just) state authorities. There would be little Guzmán could do to discredit stories of collusion with local authorities, as they would be received uncritically by Guatemalan consumers. As an alternative, Guzmán’s counter-strategy may be to disseminate news of his opposing corrupt local authorities wielded by Los Zetas. Although Guatemalans generally do not perceive their federal authorities as just, Guzmán will seek to avoid appearing as a threat to Guatemalan sovereignty. This will require effort, as a gangster’s relationship with the local political power structure is usually more evident than in the case of the traditional, rural social bandit.[25]

Summary and Conclusions

As Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and other crime lords increasingly rely upon the Mexico-Guatemala border region to evade authorities, information operations will need to be adjusted by state authorities attempting to influence public reaction to such figures, or by criminals seeking to alienate the public from one another. A systematic theoretical examination of social banditry yielded three primary strategies along which an individual’s prestige as a social bandit may be refuted (or protected). These include emphasizing closeness between state power and the local poor (a difficult prospect in Guatemala), emphasizing the social bandit’s collusion with local authorities and opposition to state authorities (a more realistic prospect), and emphasizing distance between the social bandit and the common poor (predicted as the most important of the three within Guatemala). To enhance his prestige as that of a social bandit near or within Guatemala, Guzmán’s essential strategies would be to emphasize distance between state power and the local population (especially the poor), emphasize opposition against local authorities wielded by rivals Los Zetas, avoiding direct opposition to Guatemalan state authorities, explaining how his presence invigorates the local economy, and publicizing local philanthropy. State-sponsored information operations campaigns that do not make the above described adjustments to account for these primary strategies will not yield ideal results in Guatemala or the Mexico-Guatemala border region.

[1]5 falsas capturas de ‘El Chapo’”. Tierra del Narco. Feb 5, 2013. Accessed March 10, 2013:

[2] Hernandez, Anabel. ““El Chapo” reestructura y expande su imperio”. Proceso. Feb 23, 2013. Accessed March 10, 2013:

[3] In this article, persona refers to a public perception (accurate or inaccurate) of personhood, as distinguished from personality, which would refer to essential aspects of personhood that remain continuous between different social contexts – regardless of the perceptions of others. Empirically-based metrics of persona may not necessarily correlate with metrics of personality.

[4]El Chapo Guzmán más peligroso que Al Capone para EU”. Tierra del Narco. February 2013. Accessed March 10, 2013:

[5] Sullivan, John P. “Criminal Insurgency: Narcocultura, Social Banditry, and Information Operations”. Small Wars Journal. Dec 3, 2012. Accessed March 10, 2013:

[6]El "Chapo Guzmán" se oculta en El Petén, Guatemala”. Notinfomex. Feb 7, 2013. Accessed March 10, 2013:

[7] Carrasco Araizaga, Jorge. ”El Chapo, también protegido en Guatemala”. Proceso. June 6, 2011.

[8] Hobsbawm, Eric (2000). Bandits. Revised Edition. The New Press. 45.

[9] Hobsbawm, 95.

[10] Hobsbawm, 95, 121-123.

[11] Sullivan, John P. “Criminal Insurgency: Narcocultura, Social Banditry, and Information Operations”. Small Wars Journal. Dec 3, 2012. Accessed March 10, 2013:

[12] Hobsbawm, Eric (2000). Bandits. Revised Edition. The New Press.

[13] Carrasco Araizaga, Jorge. ”El Chapo, también protegido en Guatemala”. Proceso. June 6, 2011.

[14] “Difunde blog del narco supuesto video de “El Chapo””. Proceso. March 12, 2012. Accessed March 10, 2013:

[15] It is unclear how old the video was when it was disseminated in March 2012. It was a 1 minute 44 second portion of a longer, unreleased interrogation. Additionally, the figure resembling Guzman does not acknowledge the camera, and it is uncertain whether he was aware of the recording.

[16]Es 'El Chapo' principal objetivo del gobierno mexicano: Segob”. Historias del Narco. Feb 15, 2013. Accessed March 10, 2013:

[17]Narcocomunicado de El Chapo Guzman para el Z40...”. Mundo Narco. February 12, 2013: Accessed March 10, 2013:

[18]¿Mataron Los Zetas a cientos de migrantes en Chiapas?”. Mundo Narco. September 24, 2012. Accessed March 10, 2013:

[19]Zetas arrojan a migrantes de tren en movimiento si no pagan la cuota ”. February 25, 2013. Mundo Narco. Accessed March 10, 2013:

[20]Sacerdote que ayuda a migrantes no se deja intimidar por amenazas de muerte de Los Zetas”. Mundo Narco. August 12, 2012. Accessed March 10, 2013:

[21]¿Amenazaron los Zetas con matar a un sacerdote que ayuda a los migrantes pobres?”. Mundo Narco. June 8, 2012. Accessed March 10, 2013:

[22] Because Los Zetas have established more connections in Guatemala, and Zetas’ leader Miguel Treviño is not perceived as a social bandit anywhere (nor has he publically indicated interest in managing his public image in such a manner), it is more likely Guzman’s information operations near and within Guatemala will attempt to demonize the Los Zetas organization more than Treviño’s person.

[23]Caen 30 miembros del cártel de Jalisco infiltrados en la policía comunitaria”. Mundo Narco. March 7, 2013. Accessed March 10, 2013:

[24] “Detienen a otros 17 miembros de grupo de autodefensa en Michoacán”. Proceso. March 11, 2013. Accessed March 11, 2013:

[25] Hobsbawm, 96.


About the Author(s)

Dr. Guy Fricano researches communicative aspects of terrorism, political violence, and the exercise of spiritual authority. He holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Chicago and a Master’s degree in Terrorism Studies from the University of St Andrews.