MEXICO CITY — The world’s most-wanted drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, arrived at the Mexico City airport after his arrest early Saturday and was being taken directly to prison, said Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam.
Guzman, short and stocky, as his nickname implies, appeared in a white shirt and dark pants and had a mustache and full head of dark hair as he was held at the neck and escorted by two masked marines.
A massive operation that mushroomed through the western Mexican state of Sinaloa between Feb. 13 and 17 netted Guzman, who was captured at 6:40 a.m. by Mexican marines at the Miramar condominium along the waterfront in the resort city of Mazatlan, officials said.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto confirmed the arrest on his Twitter account Saturday afternoon.
Guzman, 56, 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.
Murillo Karam said a coordinated operation by several Mexican security agencies came upon several houses where Guzman was known to stay, though the prosecutor didn’t say in what city. He said 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.
ARRESTS, RAIDS SNOWBALL
Murillo Karam didn’t say how authorities traced Guzman 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, Murillo Karam said.
Guzman’s arrest followed the take-down 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 drainage 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, where he was arrested with “a few” of his bodyguards nearby, Vigil said.
“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,” he added.
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. 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.
Calderon congratulated Pena Nieto on the capture Saturday via his Twitter account.
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.
“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.
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.”
A LONG AND STORIED MANHUNT
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 gun battle. Days later, police in the Netherlands arrested Zambada’s flamboyant top enforcer as he arrived in Amsterdam.
For that reason, rumors circulated that the government was mounting a major operation to get Zambada.
Guzman’s capture ended a long and storied manhunt. He was rumored to live everywhere from Argentina to 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 cultivations 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 methamphetamines.
CELEBRATED IN SONG
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 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 is still celebrated in folk songs and is said to have enjoyed deep protection from 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.”