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Forbes Most Powerful List: Drug Lord "El Chapo" At 41, Ahead Of 3 Presidents

JULIE WATSON   11/12/09 11:53 PM ET   AP

El Chapo

MEXICO CITY — Mexico's most-wanted drug lord escaped prison by hiding in a laundry truck nearly a decade ago, and his legend and fortune seem to grow with each passing day he eludes capture.

Now he has reached a new level of fame – or infamy – by making Forbes magazine's list of the 67 "World's Most Powerful People."

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is even considered more powerful than Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – No. 67 – and France's Nicolas Sarkozy – No. 56 – according to Forbes magazine's list of the 67 "World's Most Powerful People." At No. 41, Guzman was just below Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Mexican officials blame Guzman's Sinaloa cartel for much of the country's staggering bloodshed. Drug violence has killed nearly 14,000 people since President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006, and more than 2,000 people so far this year in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, where Guzman's gang is fighting a turf battle against the Juarez cartel.

"Of course he's influential, rich and powerful, but he has cost so many lives, so many youths," said Gabriela Lopez, a 25-year-old businesswoman in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa. "I wish they would make a list pointing out that as well."

Guzman's vast drug trafficking empire is worth an estimated $1 billion, according to Forbes. Yet unlike other, flashier smugglers, few details are known about the Sinaloa boss and the actual power he wields inside the cartel.

"I think he's an almost iconic figure in the underworld," said Don Thornhill, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who tracked Guzman and other Mexican drug lords during his 25-year career before retiring in 2007. "He's certainly taken on legendary status because of his jail break. I think he's pretty savvy at making the right contacts, knowing the right people to pay off, which is why he has managed to keep going as long as he has."

Growing up poor, Guzman was drawn to the money being made by the flow of illegal drugs through his home state of Sinaloa.

He joined the Guadalajara cartel, run by Mexican Godfather Miguel Angel Gallardo, and rose quickly through the ranks as a ruthless businessman and skilled networker, making key contacts with politicians and police to ensure his loads made it through without problems.

After Gallardo was arrested in 1989, the gang split, and Guzman took control of Sinaloa's operations.

The Sinaloa cartel violently seized lucrative drug routes from rivals and built sophisticated tunnels under the U.S. border to move its loads.

In 1993, gunmen linked to the Tijuana cartel attempted to assassinate Guzman at the Guadalajara airport but missed and instead killed Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, outraging Mexicans.

Police arrested Guzman weeks later. But he slipped out of El Puente Grande prison in a laundry truck in 2001, allegedly with the help of the prison director and more than two dozen guards.

He has escaped arrest ever since despite million-dollar rewards offered for information leading to his whereabouts.

An archbishop in northern Durango state said in April that Guzman lives in a town nearby. Days later, investigators found the bodies of two slain army lieutenants with a note: "Neither the government nor priests can handle El Chapo."

Interior Department spokesman Luis Estrada criticized the magazine's decision to name Guzman to the list, calling it "a justification of crime" and "a mockery of the struggle the government is waging against organized crime."

Forbes said Guzman's ranking was intended to spark conversation, and asked readers: "Do despicable criminals like billionaire Mexican drug lord Joaquin Guzman (No. 41) belong on this list at all?"

Another Mexican – telecom magnate Carlos Slim Helu, who Forbes listed as the world's third-richest man – was named No. 6 on the most-powerful list, just five steps behind No. 1, President Barack Obama. Chinese President Hu Jintao was No. 2 and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was listed as the world's most-powerful woman at No. 15.

Thornhill said Guzman stands out because of his ability to outlast other kingpins who have either been killed or jailed.

"It doesn't seem anyone is close to catching him soon," he said.

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Associated Press writer Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report

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Filed by Nick Graham  |