The legend of 'El Chapo': Cartel chief cultivated Robin Hood image

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Story highlights

  • Drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman escapes prison again
  • He was arrested in 2014 after eluding authorities for more than a decade
  • The stories surrounding him were almost mythical

(CNN)Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, already a nearly mythical character in Mexico, has added to his legend over the weekend by escaping from prison yet again.

After his last escape, in 2001 in a laundry cart, he eluded authorities for more than a dozen years.

During that time, the stories told about him veered close to the stuff of legend.

So powerful was he, people said, that he could bribe anyone. He commanded so much loyalty, the story went, that he was always tipped off when the heat was close. He was so fearless that he could live his life without concern of being caught.

But in 2014, when he was arrested in a hotel in the Pacific beach town of Mazatlan, in his home state of Sinaloa, it seemed his influence had its limits.

But now it seems, maybe not.

    On Saturday evening, security cameras in the maximum security Altiplano federal prison recorded Guzman approaching a shower area in which prisoners also wash their belongings.

    The old laundry cart ploy again?

    We don't know, but Guzman has not been seen since. When he did not reappear, guards checked his cell. It was -- you guessed it -- empty.

    The rumors surrounding Guzman, many of which sprouted during his previous 12 years on the lam, are numerous: With the money he had, he could be hiding anywhere in the world. He was listed by Forbes as one of the most powerful people in the world.

    Now, unless he is caught quickly, the legend will only grow.

    After his last escape, Guzman's exploits were immortalized in lyrics, such as the corridos, or folk songs, sung about him in Mexico. And the idolization crossed the border to the north. Consider the lyrics of rapper Gucci Mane's 2012 song:

    All I wanna be is El Chapo

    Fully automatic slice your auto

    All I wanna be is El Chapo

    Three billion dollars in pesos

    All I wanna be is El Chapo

    And when I meet him I'mma tell him bravo

    Guzman was born in Badiraguato, Sinaloa, at a time when the drug trade was evolving, and he began his career working for powerful drug lord Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, according to a biography by Time.

    He founded his own cartel in 1980 and established outposts in a number of states, eventually inheriting some of his mentor's territory, according to Time.

    His drug empire became Mexico's most powerful, the Sinaloa cartel. It was deadly, authorities said. Guzman surrounded himself with ruthless guards and enforcers and reigned over a multibillion-dollar global drug empire that supplied much of the marijuana, cocaine and heroin peddled on the streets of the U.S.

    In U.S. indictments, the organization has been accused of using assassins and hit squads to maintain its control.

    In Mexico, the strength of his enterprise helped unleash an ongoing drug war that has left thousands of his countrymen dead.

    Guzman was arrested in Guatemala in 1993 and extradited to Mexico, where he was convicted and sentenced to a maximum security prison.

    One of the most often retold stories about him is how he escaped from the prison in a laundry cart in 2001. The carefully planned escape required bribes and cooperation that allegedly cost him $2.5 million, according to Malcolm Beith's book "Last Narco."

    "He's a fascinating character," Beith told CNN in an interview last year. "He's the epitome of the problem. He's a poor kid who had some family connections in the drug trade, no options, no real education ... (and) becomes a big time drug lord."

    Even during his time in prison, there was very little doubt that he lived like a king, Beith said.

    And, although he dislikesbeing called the "world's most wanted drug lord," it is an accurate description of Guzman, Beith said.

    "There's tons of other drug lords around. But I think the Sinaloa cartel, given its growth, given its influence ... I think it puts him on the top," he said.

    Guzman's legend only grew the last time he was on the run from authorities. Stories of him helping the poor, or taking everyone's cell phones at a restaurant while he ate and then footing everyone's bill for their inconvenience, proliferated.

    "I think probably a lot of them have some truth," Scott Stewart, vice president of analysis at Stratfor, told CNN last year. "He wants to try to foster that whole mystique."

    The idea that he was some sort of Robin Hood character helped Guzman as he tried to evade arrest, Stewart said.

    "I think there's a false narrative that says El Chapo is kind of this benevolent businessman," he said.

    Guzman is known for not hesitating to use force when he needs to, and for bribing officials who get in his way, Stewart said.

    After he was arrested last year, Guzman's legend, fueled in part by social media, continued to grow.

    "Don't get so worked up," one person tweeted. "He's going to escape again in a cart of dirty laundry."