MEXICO CITY -- Intense gun battles were reported late Thursday in a remote jungle region of northern Guatemala where Mexico's top drug lord, Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, is known to operate.
The firefights involved a convoy carrying suspected Mexican drug traffickers and either a rival gang or Guatemalan military forces, reports from the scene said. The shooting took place in the vast Peten region where Mexican traffickers set up shop more than five years ago, taking advantage of the inaccessible Wild West nature of the region.
Information on how many people were killed in the shootout and their identities was not immediately available. Rumors that Guzman might be among the dead quickly spread through social media and into some Mexican news reports.
Guzman commands the oldest and most powerful Mexican drug-trafficking organization, the Sinaloa cartel, named for the Pacific Mexican state that is the historic cradle of local drug production. It may well be the largest such operation in the world.
A fugitive since he escaped from a maximum-security prison in 2001, supposedly by hiding in a laundry cart, Guzman has routinely been listed by Forbes magazine as among the world’s richest people. His latest wife, whom he married when she was an 18-year-old beauty queen, recently gave birth to twin girls in the Los Angeles area.
U.S. and Mexican authorities have a $5-mllion-plus bounty on his head. The search for Guzman has reached near mythic proportions, with reported sightings and Hollywood-style near-missed captures.
The Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre quoted that country’s interior minister, Mauricio Lopez Bonilla, as saying that forensic teams were traveling to the location to attempt to identify any dead and determine whether Guzman was among them. The Associated Press quoted an Interior Ministry spokeswoman as saying one of the dead apparently resembled Guzman.
“We cannot say it with certainty, but it might be him,” Lopez said, according to Prensa Libre.
The capture or killing of Guzman has long been the Holy Grail of the Mexican drug war, akin to eliminating an Al Capone or a John Dillinger. His demise could throw the Sinaloa cartel, which has hundreds of cells in California and other parts of the United States, into disarray, although it is also likely that the savvy businessman has established a clear line of succession.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, asked as he left an event whether Guzman had been killed in the gun battle, said he was in contact with Guatemalan authorities to establish the identities of the dead.
“We still don’t have any information,” he said.
Prensa Libre said at least three people were killed in the skirmish, which it described as a clash between rival drug gangs.