MEXICO CITY – A massive operation that mushroomed through the western Mexican state of Sinaloa last week netted the world’s top drug lord, who was captured early Saturday by U.S. and Mexican authorities at a condominium in Mazatlan, officials from both countries said.
Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, 56, arrived at the Mexico City airport in the afternoon, looking pudgy, bowed and much like his wanted photos. He was marched by masked marines across a tarmac to a helicopter waiting to whisk him to jail.
Guzman was found with an unidentified woman, said one official not authorized to be quoted by name, adding that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Marshals Service were “heavily involved” in the capture. No shots were fired.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam described an operation that took place between Feb. 13 and 17, presumably in Guzman’s home state of Sinaloa, though he didn’t say what city.
Mexican security agencies came upon several houses where Guzman was known to stay, Murillo Karam said, adding that they found tunnels connecting seven homes and the city’s sewer system, presumably for escape. The doors were reinforced with steel, which delayed entry by law enforcement, presumably allowing Guzman to flee several attempts at his capture before Saturday.
Murillo Karam didn’t say how authorities traced him to Mazatlan, but said they knew of his whereabouts several times. They were unable to mount an operation earlier because of possible risks to the general public, he added.
Guzman faces multiple drug trafficking indictments in the U.S., including one handed up in 2009 by a federal grand jury in Chicago. The indictment named Guzman and other members of the cartel in a conspiracy to import and sell large amounts of cocaine and heroin in the United States.
Authorities have not yet said whether Guzman will be extradited to the U.S.
But Jack Riley, head of the Chicago office of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told the Chicago Sun-Times he believes that Chicago has the strongest argument for getting the case.
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. The information leading to Guzman was gleaned from those arrested, said Michael S. Vigil, a former senior DEA official who was briefed on the operation.
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-colored 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, with a couple of simple couches in the lobby and a bare cement staircase leading up to the condominiums.
“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, adding that Guzman was arrested with “a few” of his bodyguards nearby.
One American retiree living in the building, who did not want to give his name, said he has lived there for two years and never heard or saw anything unusual.
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, rumors circulated for years that he was helped and protected by former Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s government, which vanquished some of his top rivals.
In the bilateral assault on organized 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 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 organized crime has been questioned since he took office in late 2012.
But there were rumors circulating for months that a major operation was under way 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.”
Rumors 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 U.S. 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. He’s also accused of conspiring to smuggle heroin into the United States and money laundering.
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. Guzman faces a two-count indictment in Chicago charging him with running a drug smuggling conspiracy responsible for smuggling cocaine and heroin into the U.S. He’s also charged in New York with drug trafficking, murder, kidnapping and other crimes.
Guzman is still celebrated in folk songs and is said to have enjoyed deep protection from humble villagers in the rugged hills of Sinaloa and Durango where he has hidden from authorities.
“There’s no drug-trafficking organization in Mexico with the scope, the savvy, the operational ability, expertise and knowledge as the Sinaloa cartel,” said one former U.S. law enforcement official, who couldn’t be quoted by name for security reasons. “You’ve kind of lined yourself up the New York Yankees of the drug trafficking world.”
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.
After Gallardo was arrested in 1989, the gang split, and Guzman took control of Sinaloa’s operations.
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.
Stevenson contributed to this report in Mexico City. Spagat reported from San Diego, California, and Caldwell from Washington, D.C.