Authorities on Saturday captured Mexico’s most wanted accused drug lord, Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera, in a stunning development likely to deal a fateful blow to a drug syndicate with vast tentacles around the globe.
Law enforcement officers arrested Guzman Saturday at 6:40 a.m. in a yellow-and-white beachfront high-rise in the Pacific Coast resort city of Mazatlan without firing a shot. The arrest ended a manhunt that had lasted 13 years. A second person arrested with Guzman was not identified.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam described a dramatic end to Guzman’s freedom, saying Mexican naval commandoes in recent days raided a series of houses where Guzman regularly stayed that were connected by tunnels and drain pipes. At one point, he said, Guzman escaped capture by two minutes when commandoes were delayed by a steel reinforcement that allowed “for an escape through the tunnels.”
Murillo Karam said authorities delayed announcing the arrest until early afternoon to fully identify the man arrested as Guzman.
“His identity is 100 percent assured,” Murillo Karam told a news conference outside a naval hangar in the capital. Moments later, hooded naval commandos marched Guzman across the tarmac to a waiting aircraft. He was not allowed to speak, and Mexican officials did not say where he was being taken, though reports indicated he was bound for one of Mexico’s three “super max” prisons.
Despite his age, reported to be between 55 and 60, Guzman appeared with a full head of dark hair and bushy moustache.
President Enrique Pena Nieto confirmed the arrest in Twitter messages. “I acknowledge the work of the security institutions of the Mexican state to achieve the apprehension of Joaquin Guzman Loera in Mazatlan,” one read.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also hailed Guzman’s arrest. “The criminal activity Guzman allegedly directed contributed to the death and destruction of millions of lives across the globe through drug addiction, violence, and corruption. We salute the government of Mexico, and the professionalism and courage of the Mexican authorities, for this arrest,” the statement said.
Guzman is a near mythic figure who rose from poverty to build his Sinaloa Cartel over several decades into Mexico’s dominant drug cartel, rivaled only for a period by Los Zetas, a drug gang operating largely on the east coast of Mexico.
Forbes Magazine recently listed Guzman as a billionaire who is “the world’s most powerful drug trafficker,” responsible for an estimated 25 percent of all the illegal drugs that enter the United States from Mexico.
Several prominent Mexicans applauded the capture.
“A big blow,” tweeted former President Felipe Calderon.
Guzman faces criminal indictments for drug trafficking and organized crime in Arizona, southern California and Illinois. It was not immediately clear if Mexico would agree to extradite Guzman or seek to put him on trial in its own troubled judicial system.
The U.S. State Department had offered a $5 million bounty for Guzman’s capture, and the Mexican government had posted another $2.2 million reward.
Murillo Karam said pressure on Guzman grew after a series of raids that unfolded in Sinaloa state in northwest Mexico Feb. 13-17. In one raid, naval commandos seized a top aide to Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, a fellow crime boss in the federation run by Guzman.
Over subsequent days, Murillo Karam said, commandos raided a series of houses in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state, where Guzman routinely stayed, including the one from which Guzman narrowly escaped. Murillo Karam did not explain how the search moved from Culiacan to Mazatlan.
Murillo Karam credited U.S. agencies in helping capture Guzman, although he did not provide details. Neither did Holder’s statement nor one by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who called Guzman’s arrest a “milestone in our common interest of combating drug trafficking, violence and illicit activity along our shared border.”
In recent years, Guzman had eluded arrest repeatedly. Alleged sightings of him were reported in Honduras, Guatemala and Argentina. He was once thought to operate with a 300-man armed ring of security wherever he went.
Guzman began his drug trafficking career in the late 1980s, working with now-jailed Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo of the Guadalajara Cartel. As Guzman’s operations grew, based out of the rugged Sierra Madre in his native coastal Sinaloa state in northwest Mexico, he had a falling out with his bosses over control of the vital Tijuana smuggling corridor and struck out on his own.
He is known widely simply by his Spanish nickname, “El Chapo,” or Shorty, a reflection of his 5-foot-6 stature.
Authorities arrested Guzman in June 1993 in Guatemala and extradited him to Mexico. But Guzman escaped the high security Puente Grande prison in Jalisco State in January 2001, hidden in a laundry basket and apparently with the help of corrupt prison officials.
After his escape, Guzman rose to dominate the narcotics trade throughout much of Latin America, supplanting the Colombian drug cartels that controlled cocaine smuggling in the 1980s and 1990s. Guzman’s group is known to smuggle cocaine from the Andean region by sea and air, moving it to West Africa, Europe and even Oceania and the Far East. It also trafficked heroin and marijuana.
A State Department summary says Guzman’s criminal group maintains “cells in Arizona, California, Texas, Chicago, and New York.”
In 2013, the Chicago Crime Commission named Guzman "Public Enemy No. One" due to his criminal syndicate’s influence in Chicago.
Guzman was widely believed to be an advocate of the “plata o plomo” – silver or lead – system of corrupting Mexican officials, giving them the choice of taking payoffs or facing a hitman’s bullet. Unlike the rival Zetas cartel, which used beheadings and other terror tactics to enforce its dominance, the Sinaloa Cartel operatives favored less violent methods.
The one grand exception, however, was in a years-long battle for control of Ciudad Juarez, where Sinaloa proxy street gangs waged a bloody street-by-street battle that took over 10,000 lives between 2010 and last year as they sought to wrest control from the Juarez cartel.
Guzman’s capture marks a triumph for Pena Nieto, whose government last July seized the leader of Los Zetas, Miguel Angel Trevino, a major figure, leading to a sharp reduction in the capacity of that group. It also indicates that U.S.-Mexican counter narcotics cooperation remains effective, although at reduced levels from the levels under Calderon, Pena Nieto’s predecessor.
Rather than bring down levels of violence, however, the arrest may spark armed upheaval in areas where Guzman kept the peace. Other crime chiefs in the Sinaloa Cartel will need to sort out a new leadership structure.
“With Guzman now in custody, the remaining top bosses, along with several less-prominent leaders, will look to maintain the Sinaloa Federation’s control over Guzman’s network. This could spark a wave of violence throughout northwestern Mexico if internal shifts evolve into intra-cartel conflict,” the Stratfor global intelligence consultancy, based in Austin, Texas, said in a quick analysis sent to clients.
If rival criminal gangs see an opening in the Sinaloa Cartel’s areas of dominance in the states of Baja California, Sonora, Durango, Sinaloa and Chihuahua, then, Stratfor said, it “would expect to see an increase in inter-cartel violence on some scale.”
For now, Mexico’s government faces its own challenge: Keeping Guzman in prison and awaiting trial, a major test given Guzman’s immense wealth and the deep-seated corruption in Mexico’s judiciary.
Last August, another infamous drug lord, Rafael Caro Quintero, walked out of jail on early release from a 40-year term, freed by judges who took him off the hook for the 1985 kidnap and killing of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Enrique Camarena. The U.S. Justice Department voiced its “disappointment” in the release.
By Tim Johnson
McClatchy Foreign Staff