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Getting Shorty, without a fight

Mexican druglord Joaquín Guzmán Loera El Chapo, the world’s most wanted man, has been arrested in Mexico. But was it really him?

Published:February 25, 2014 4:30 am

“It was too easy,” said a young woman, her eyes fixed on the 12-storey condominium where Mexican marines and US agents grabbed Joaquín Guzmán Loera El Chapo, drug kingpin to the world, early Saturday morning. “No shootout, no final stand?”

The takedown this weekend of the world’s most wanted man — the chief executive of what experts describe as the world’s most sophisticated narcotics enterprise, the Sinaloa cartel — upended long-held assumptions about the impunity of Mexican mobsters. Guzmán, after all, seemed untouchable, relying time and again on intimidation and bribery to keep his freedom.

But the giant known as Shorty fell with an odd humility, awakened shirtless by the authorities before 7 am on Saturday. He neither died in a blaze of glory nor managed another daring escape.

US agents and Mexican marines worked together for weeks, until the moment of capture, when they crashed through the door of a fourth-floor apartment overlooking the Pacific.

It began with a meeting a few weeks ago. The US Drug Enforcement Administration presented a body of intelligence information to Mexican navy officials. The Americans had worked closely before with the marines but were not certain their counterparts would take on the mission. President Enrique Peña Nieto had made clear that the economy was his priority.

Officials said there were local obstacles too. Many Sinaloans considered Guzmán as a kind of favourite rebel son. His cartel has deep roots across the state, with many arguing that his operation is relatively benign in comparison to some newer groups that rely more on extortion and kidnapping.

“It’s an old model of organised crime that’s not predatory on the local population,” said Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence officer. Still, he added, “For all the talk of Chapo as a good narco, this is the person who was responsible for the drug war in Tijuana and Juárez. That’s thousands of deaths.”

Roughly a month before Guzmán’s capture, the Mexican marines began to sweep methodically through Culiacán, the Sinaloa state capital. They knocked down doors and recovered weapons, armoured cars, drugs and cash.

The drug operators scurried. On February 13, three men were arrested on the road to Mazatlán, including a man called “19”, believed to be the new head assassin for one of Guzmán’s senior officers, Ismael (Mayo) Zambada. On February 17, another senior leader was captured with 4,000 hollowed-out cucumbers and bananas filled with cocaine. A half-dozen others followed.

Working on information from some of Guzmán’s bodyguards, Mexican marines and US agents raided the home of his ex-wife on Thursday. After struggling to batter down the steel-reinforced door, instead of finding their prey, they discovered a secret door beneath a bathtub that led to a network of tunnels and sewer canals that connected to six other houses.

The search continued, but the earlier arrests and intelligence were pointing south, to Mazatlán — one of Mexico’s first resorts. An intercepted call to Guzmán’s cellphone had already triggered the command to move on Friday. In the dark of night on Saturday, neighbours heard knocks on the doors. US officials said the teams did not know which apartment he was in. Then came a crash.

By the time retirees down the block heard helicopters — “I was waiting to hear the gunfire,” one Canadian woman said — it was over. Some reports said the authorities also found a woman in the apartment and photos of the room show two children’s suitcases on a bed, suggesting Guzmán was with his wife and twin 2-year-old daughters. But US officials said they were surprised by what was not there: a cache of weapons. Not a single shot was fired.

Local residents cast doubt on the operation for that reason. That it happened just a few days after President Barack Obama visited Mexico, during a week when official figures showed the economy grew by only 1.1 per cent.

“It’s a fantasy,” said Ofelia Aguilar, 52. “It has to be someone else. I just don’t believe it.”

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