Mexican authorities captured the world’s most powerful drug lord in a resort city on Saturday after a massive search through the home state of the legendary capo whose global organisation is the leading supplier of cocaine to the United States. Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, 56, looked pudgy, bowed and much like his wanted photos when he arrived in Mexico City from Mazatlan in Sinaloa state. He was accompanied by masked marines across the airport tarmac to a helicopter waiting to whisk him to jail.
Mexican marines arrested Guzman at 6:40 a.m. in a high-rise condominium fronting the Pacific without firing a single shot. Mexican officials late on Saturday said he was apprehended with a man identified as Carlos Manuel Hoo Ramirez, contradicting earlier reports that he was arrested with a woman. An American official said that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Marshals Service were “heavily involved” in the capture.
Another federal law enforcement official said intelligence from a Homeland Security Department investigation also helped lead U.S. and Mexican authorities to his whereabouts. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to journalists. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the capture a “victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States.”
Mexican authorities, based on a series of arrests in recent months, got wind that Guzman was moving around Culiacan, capital of his home state for which the cartel is named. Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam described an operation that took place between Feb. 13 and 17 focused on seven homes connected by tunnels and to the city’s sewer system. He said they had Guzman in their sights several times during that period, but were unable to mount an operation earlier because of possible risks to the general public. The house doors were reinforced with steel, which delayed entry by law enforcement, presumably allowing Guzman to flee several attempts at his capture before Saturday.
A U.S. law enforcement official said members of Guzman’s security team helped Mexican and U.S. authorities find him after they were arrested earlier this month. The official was not authorised to discuss details of the case by name and spoke on condition of anonymity. Guzman faces multiple federal drug trafficking indictments in the U.S. and is on the DEA’s most-wanted list. His drug empire stretches throughout North America and reaches as far away as Europe and Australia. His cartel has been heavily involved in the bloody drug war that has torn through parts of Mexico for the last several years.
His arrest followed the takedown of several top Sinaloa operatives in the last few months and at least 10 mid-level cartel members in the last week. Michael S. Vigil, a former senior DEA official who was briefed on the operation, said the Mexican navy raided the Culiacan house of Guzman’s ex-wife, Griselda Lopez, earlier this week and found a cache of weapons and a tunnel in one of the rooms that led to the city’s sewer system, leading authorities to believe Guzman barely escaped, Vigil said.
As more people were arrested, more homes were raided. “It became like a nuclear explosion where the mushroom started to expand throughout the city of Culiacan,” Vigil said. Authorities learned that Guzman fled to nearby Mazatlan. He was arrested at the Miramar condominiums, a 10-story, pearl-coloured building with white balconies overlooking the Pacific and a small pool in front. The building is one of dozens of relatively modest, upper-middle-class developments on the Mazatlan coastal promenade.
“He got tired of living up in the mountains and not being able to enjoy the comforts of his wealth. He became complacent and starting coming into the city of Culiacan and Mazatlan. That was a fatal error,” said Vigil. Vigil said Mexico may decide to extradite Guzman to the U.S. to avoid any possibility that he escapes from prison again, as he did in 2001 in a laundry truck – a feat that fed his larger-than-life persona.
It would be a massive black eye on the (Mexican) government if he is able to escape again. That’s the only reason they would turn him over,” Vigil said. Because insiders aided his escape, rumours circulated for years that he was helped and protected by former President Felipe Calderon’s government, which vanquished some of his top rivals. In the bilateral assault on organised crime and Mexican drug cartels, Sinaloa had not only been relatively unscathed, but has seen its enemies go down at the hands of the government.
Aggressive assaults by the Mexican military and federal police have all but dismantled the leadership of the Beltran Leyva and Zetas cartels, both huge rivals of Sinaloa, as well as the La Linea gang fighting Sinaloa for control of the border city of Ciudad Juarez. Calderon congratulated Pena Nieto on the capture on Saturday via his Twitter account. Many also noted the huge boost that capture gave to the credibility of the Pena Nieto government, whose commitment to fighting organised crime has been questioned since he took office in late 2012.
But there were rumours circulating for months that a major operation was underway to take down the Sinaloa cartel. Zambada’s son was arrested in November after entering Arizona, where he had an appointment with U.S. immigration authorities to arrange legal status for his wife. The following month, Zambada’s main lieutenant was killed as Mexican helicopter gunships sprayed bullets at his mansion in the Gulf of California resort of Puerto Penasco in a four-hour gunbattle. Days later, police in the Netherlands arrested a flamboyant top enforcer for Zambada as he arrived in Amsterdam.
But experts predict that as long as Guzman’s partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada is at large, the cartel will continue business as usual. “The take-down of Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman Loera is a thorn in the side of the Sinaloa Cartel, but not a dagger in its heart,” said College of William and Mary government professor George Grayson, who studies Mexico’s cartels. “Zambada … will step into El Chapo’s boots. He is also allied with Juan Jose ‘El Azul’ Esparragoza Moreno, one of most astute lords in Mexico’s underworld and, by far, its best negotiator.”
Rumours had long circulated that Guzman was hiding everywhere from Argentina and Guatemala to almost every corner of Mexico, especially its “Golden Triangle,” a mountainous, marijuana-growing region straddling the northern states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua. In more than a decade on the run, Guzman transformed himself from a middling Mexican capo into arguably the most powerful drug trafficker in the world. His fortune has grown to more than $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which listed him among the “World’s Most Powerful People” and ranked him above the presidents of France and Venezuela.
His Sinaloa Cartel grew bloodier and more powerful, taking over much of the lucrative trafficking routes along the U.S. border, including such prized cities as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. Guzman’s play for power against local cartels caused a bloodbath in Tijuana and made Juarez one of the deadliest cities in the world. In little more than a year, Mexico’s biggest marijuana bust, 134 tons, and its biggest cultivation were tied to Sinaloa, as were a giant underground methamphetamine lab in western Mexico and hundreds of tons of precursor chemicals seized in Mexico and Guatemala.
His cartel’s tentacles now extend as far as Australia thanks to a sophisticated, international distribution system for cocaine and methamphetamine. Guzman did all that with a $7 million bounty on his head and while evading thousands of law enforcement agents from the U.S. and other countries devoted to his capture. A US federal indictment unsealed in San Diego in 1995 charges Guzman and 22 members of his organization with conspiracy to import over eight tons of cocaine and money laundering. A provisional arrest warrant was issued as a result of the indictment, according to the U.S. State Department.
He also has been indicted by federal authorities in the United States several times since 1996. The charges include allegations that he and others conspired to smuggle “multi-ton quantities” of cocaine into the U.S. and used violence, including murder, kidnapping and torture to keep the smuggling operation running. In 2013, he was named “Public Enemy No. 1” by the Chicago Crime Commission, only the second person to get that distinction after U.S. prohibition-era crime boss Al Capone.
An estimated 70,000 people have been killed in drug violence since former President Calderon deployed thousands of soldiers to drug hotspots upon taking office on Dec. 1, 2006. The current government of Pena Nieto has stopped tallying drug-related killings separately.