A memory once shared by María Consuelo Loera was how her son counted the stacks of money as he started to rise in Mexico’s drug world. Then he would recount the money over and over for the satisfaction of feeling the bills and announcing the totals.
The young man at the counting table was Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. He would eventually build one of the most ruthless and expansive narco-empires in the world — and become among the most-wanted drug lords as he repeatedly slipped away from authorities until his extradition to the United States in 2017.
“Even as little child, he had ambitions,” said Ms. Loera, who was surrounded by the riches supplied by her son but refused to publicly decry the bloodshed and lives shattered by the cartel. She died Dec. 10 at 94 in a hospital near the family’s stronghold in Mexico’s Sinaloa state, according to Mexican officials.
Ms. Loera was never accused of any direct role in her son’s cartel, which at its height flooded the United States with huge shipments of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs. Instead, she spent much of her last decades inside a gilded bubble built by her son, who feared rivals could target her as revenge.
In Mexico, Ms. Loera was both pitied as an effective prisoner of the cartel and mythologized for her connections to it. She was under round-the-clock watch by cartel loyalists at a ranch near La Tuna, the family hamlet in a mountainous areas known as the Golden Triangle for its history of marijuana and opium cultivation. She had chauffeured 4x4s on call and a private plane with crew on standby.
And yet she “always publicly denied that [her son] was the boss of the most powerful drug cartel in Mexico,” said Jenaro Villamil, a journalist and president of Mexico’s public broadcasting agency.
Ms. Loera occasionally gave interviews with journalists, authors and documentary filmmakers. She was nearly always portrayed in contrasting terms: steely in her refusal to criticize her son, but also homespun with gray hair pulled back in a bun and wearing simple cotton dresses and sandals. She increasingly turned to religion.
“He already experienced what is out there in the world,” she told Univision in 2014, “so now he has to look for God, because God is the only one that can protect him and help him to sort out his problems,” Loera said.
Still, to many Mexicans, she remained a symbol of the cartels and their corrosive power. Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, faced outrage in March 2020 when he shook hands with Ms. Loera during a visit to Sinaloa. She asked him to help obtain a U.S. visa for a family member to visit her son, who is serving a life sentence in a supermaximum-security prison in Colorado. López Obrador called the encounter with Ms. Loera a gesture of respect to an older woman, “regardless of who her son is.”
“If I shake hands with white-collar criminals,” he added, “how can I not shake it with a lady?”
Guzmán — whose nickname El Chapo means “shorty,” referencing his stocky, 5-foot-6 frame — had waged a cat-and-mouse spectacle with Mexican authorities for years. He was nabbed, then repeatedly escaped. In 2001, he was smuggled from prison, possibly inside a laundry cart. In 2015, he slithered down a hole cut in the floor of his cell’s shower stall and fled through a mile-long tunnel dug by cartel members.
He was recaptured in 2016 at a hotel in Sinaloa and held in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez. This time, the United States pressed for extradition.
In January 2017, Guzmán was sent north on a flight with U.S. authorities, arriving in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., wearing a yellow parka over a gray prison outfit. He was convicted in a federal court in Brooklyn in 2019 on counts including murder conspiracies and drug trafficking in what prosecutors called “the world’s largest and most prolific drug trafficking organization.”
During his years as a fugitive in Mexico, he claimed that he was able to visit with his mother without much fear of arrest. She was his “pillar of emotional support,” he said. And he raved about her enchiladas.
“See your mother much?” actor Sean Penn asked him during a secret meeting in 2016, described in an article in Rolling Stone.
“All the time,” he replied, according to Penn’s account. “I hoped we would meet at my ranch and you could meet my mother. She knows me better than I do. But something came up and we had to change the plan.” (Mexican authorities later said that the interview helped them track down Guzmán.)
During the hunt, a Mexican military unit up showed up at Ms. Loera’s ranch looking for information. She gave them nothing, according to the 2021 memoir “El Fixer,” by Mexican journalist Miguel Angel Vega, on covering the drug cartels.
Oddly, though, they treated her like a celebrity, Vega wrote, saying it was “an honor to meet the mother of a legend.”
María Consuelo Loera Pérez was born in 1929, but little was known publicly about her life before her marriage to a cattle farmer, Emilio Guzmán Bustillos, and the family they raised in La Tuna. The boy later known as El Chapo was born April 4, 1957. The family eventually grew to four sons and two daughters.
Her husband began to make small-time drug deals, selling homegrown marijuana and poppies, used to make heroin. But he blew any profits on drinking and carousing, according to various biographies on the drug kingpin Guzmán. The brothers decided to begin growing poppies on their own. Guzmán left school after the third grade.
By the late 1970s, the Guzmán clan had emerged as a rising force in the Sinaloa drug underworld. Soon, the cartel was the most powerful in Mexico. Guzmán claimed in 2014 that he had up to 3,000 people killed in drug wars with rivals.
“They were difficult times,” Ms. Loera said in 2018, apparently unapologetic over the family’s past. “We longed for something better.”
Her death was reported by family attorneys, but no cause was cited. Mexican media said she died at a hospital in Culiacán less than a month after gallbladder surgery.
Shortly after Guzmán’s capture in 2016, about 150 armed men stormed Ms. Loera’s compound. At least three people were killed; cars and motorcycles were stolen. Ms. Loera was unharmed.
“As a mother, one does her best to raise her children, and then when they’re grown, they go and do whatever they want,” she said in the Univision interview. “Whether they do good or bad, one still is mother.”