MAZATLAN, Mexico — Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, one of the world's biggest drug traffickers and Mexico's most-wanted fugitive, was captured Saturday in a joint U.S.-Mexican operation after more than a decade on the run, officials of both countries announced.
Guzman was arrested by agents who burst into the seaside condominium in the Sinaloa resort of Mazatlan where he had moved just two days earlier.
FOR THE RECORD:
Drug lord's arrest: An article in the Feb. 23 Section A about the arrest of Sinaloa drug cartel chief Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman included a photo caption that said Guzman was arrested at a 10-story condo complex. As the article correctly said, it was an 11-story complex. —
His capture was a huge symbolic blow to Mexican drug trafficking, a world in which he had reached folk hero status, and an important victory for the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto.
How Guzman's removal will affect the drug trade is less clear. His Sinaloa cartel, Mexico's oldest, richest and most powerful marijuana and opium organization, has already expanded to more than 50 countries in the Americas, Europe and Africa, and is likely to continue without him.
"This is the biggest blow to drug trafficking by the Mexican government in many, many years," said Samuel Gonzalez, former federal prosecutor who headed the government's anti-narcotics squad in the 1990s. "It will, at least for a while, affect the flow of drugs to the U.S., though not necessarily the violence in Mexico."
Others said it would make no difference at all.
The elusive drug lord was paraded briefly before reporters Saturday afternoon at the Mexican navy's air hangar in Mexico City, where he was whisked from Mazatlan. He seemed slightly pudgy, in a white shirt and blue jeans, with abnormally black hair and a black mustache. He did not resemble the last known photos of him, which date to his arrest in Guatemala in 1993. He had been on the run since escaping from a Mexican maximum security prison in 2001, reportedly by hiding in a laundry cart.
First word of the arrest came from U.S. officials in Washington. Mexican Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam said the capture was the result of months of work and that the Mexican government delayed announcing it until it was able to conduct a DNA test to be sure it had the right man.
"He has been 100% identified," Murillo said. He said Guzman had been hiding in a network of houses connected by tunnels that allowed him to elude authorities.
Murillo made slight mention of U.S. assistance, reflecting the Peña Nieto government's effort to distance itself from Washington's help, a contrast to the extraordinarily close relationship the previous government of President Felipe Calderon had with U.S. officials.
Residents in the 11-story seaside Miramar Condominium complex where Guzman was captured said he had moved in two days ago. They said the operation to capture him lasted about an hour and a half, starting about 4:30 a.m., when they noticed soldiers, police and, eventually, helicopters surrounding the complex. No shots were fired.
"There was no violence," said one resident, who asked to remain anonymous because of concern for his safety. "I had no idea who was living next door!"
In recent days, the Mexican marines raided properties in Sinaloa belonging to close associates of Guzman, including that of one of his ex-wives. They had captured several high-level lieutenants; it is possible one of them fingered Guzman.
There was a strong possibility that U.S. officials, who had put a $5-million bounty on Guzman, would quickly demand his extradition.
"He's already escaped from one Mexican jail," a U.S. official said. "Now we want him."
Guzman was being tracked for some time by Mexican authorities aided by undercover U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and officials with the U.S. Marshal's Service, according to a Homeland Security official in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The capture came after an informant alerted authorities that Guzman had been attending a party at a resort in the Mazatlan area, despite earlier intelligence that the cartel leader had been in hiding for years in the mountains.
"He was on our radar for several weeks," the law enforcement official said.
According to residents of the complex, four men, three women and a baby were taken away along with Guzman. The door of the apartment had been kicked in and the place ransacked. Clothes were strewn about, and a crib was visible in one room.
Guzman, thought to be in his late 50s, has long been considered the top prize and most elusive figure in a drug war that has left tens of thousands of Mexicans dead.
He led the cartel that was responsible for shipping tons of cocaine and marijuana to the United States. By moving into territory controlled by rival factions, like the even bloodier Zetas, he fomented violence in parts of Mexico that had been relatively peaceful, such as the border states of Tamaulipas and Coahuila, and coastal Veracruz.
His latest wife, a former beauty queen less than half his age, gave birth to twins three years ago in the Los Angeles area. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials tracked her, in the hope of finding Guzman, but were unsuccessful.
Guzman has close-set eyes and stands about 5 feet 6, earning him his widely known nickname "El Chapo," Spanish for "Shorty."
Several experts said he was already sufficiently distanced from day-to-day operations of the cartel that his absence would not be noticed. In other cases, the elimination of a top drug lord has led to a bloody power struggle among the next tier of lieutenants.
In the case of the Sinaloa cartel, Guzman's long-time partner, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, already controlled much of the operation.
"It will mean absolutely nothing. It does not mean the end of the Sinaloa cartel," Ricardo Ravelo, a prominent writer on Mexican drug-trafficking, said in a radio interview.
However, he said, it is an important victory for the Peña Nieto government, which has been accused of ignoring the cartel problem and, in fact, favoring the Sinaloa cartel over more violent rivals like the Zetas.
Anabel Hernandez, another expert on cartels and government corruption, said the Sinaloa organization would be able to continue virtually undeterred.
"A real success for Peña Nieto would be the arrest of the governors, mayors, police and other officials who allowed Guzman to become the most powerful drug lord in the world," she said.
In Washington, officials said that if Guzman is extradited, he probably will be sent to either Chicago, because of an extensive criminal case against him there, or to San Diego, where federal attorneys have prosecuted a number of top Mexican cartel leaders.
Guzman has been charged in two federal grand jury indictments in the U.S. — in Chicago and El Paso.
In the Chicago case, he and 10 other Sinaloa cartel leaders are charged with moving heroin and cocaine into the U.S. after his organization merged with another cartel. The merger fractured, prompting a war over trafficking routes into the U.S. and other issues, the indictment said.
Guzman's network imported tons of cocaine from Central and South America into Mexico, then shipped it to the U.S., along with large quantities of heroin, the indictment said.
The Guzman cartel used "Boeing 747 cargo aircraft, private aircraft, submarines and other submersible and semi-submersible vessels, container ships, go-fast boats, fishing vessels, buses, rail cars, tractor trailers and automobiles," the indictment said.
Once across the border, the drugs were moved by truck to major cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Washington. Another route went to Vancouver, Canada.
As the drugs flowed north, money moved south, the indictment said, with "millions of dollars in cash" stored in safe houses as it was gradually transferred to the cartel in Mexico. Guzman himself, the indictment said, "regularly received multimillion dollar payments."
He was identified by Forbes magazine as a billionaire, one of the world's richest men.
In the second federal indictment, Guzman was named with 23 other cartel figures on charges focusing on operations between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. These charges came after two U.S. residents were killed on cartel orders in Ciudad Juarez.
Guzman also has been charged in other indictments in San Diego and Arizona. In all, his maximum punishment if convicted ranges from life in prison with no chance of parole to the death penalty.
Wilkinson reported from Mexico City, Bartletti from Mazatlan and Serrano from Washington.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times