In a deadly, predawn shootout, Mexican naval special forces on Friday captured Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the world's most sought-after drug lord and commander of a vast narcotics empire that stretches across continents.
“Mission accomplished,” Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced on his Twitter account. “We’ve got him.”
Guzman, a billionaire thanks to his Sinaloa cartel, which traffics in cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine, escaped from jail in July — for the second time — using an elaborate tunnel out of Mexico's top maximum-security prison. He had been jailed for less than 17 months, and there was a great deal of doubt in Mexico that he’d ever see the inside of a cell again.
He was captured Friday in a firefight between his bodyguards and Mexican marine special forces in the Sinaloa city of Los Mochis, on the Pacific coast and not far from his home, government officials said. Five of his associates were killed, six injured and several captured, the navy said. One marine was wounded.
The special forces were responding to a citizen’s tip regarding armed people in a home when they came under fire, the navy said. There were reports he once again attempted to flee through the tunnels that have been his trademark, but they failed him this time.
Photographs released by officials and circulating in Mexican media showed a chubby Guzman in a soiled tank top with his famously jet-black hair and mustache.
A rocket launcher, two armored vehicles and other weapons were seized in the operation, officials said. Video images showed Guzman, head covered by a white towel, being trundled onto a small airplane and transported to Mexico City.
His escape last year was a major embarrassment for the Peña Nieto government, exposing deep levels of corruption and Mexico’s inability to mete out justice.
The U.S. government lamented Mexico’s refusal to extradite Guzman to the U.S., where he has been indicted in California, Illinois, New York and elsewhere because of his cartel’s expanding operations.
Washington is likely to revive extradition requests now. It was the Guzman escape that prompted Peña Nieto to approve a number of extraditions in recent months, something he had generally resisted.
Since that escape, Mexican officials have searched far and wide for Guzman, including in Guatemala and other countries where he is known to operate. Authorities worked “day and night,” Peña Nieto said, carrying out “months of intense, careful intelligence work and criminal investigation.”
Although details were not immediately available, most high-profile captures have relied at least in part on U.S.-provided intelligence, and that was likely in this case.
Guzman’s escape last year, on July 11, added to the great folklore surrounding the legendary kingpin, who managed to pay for the digging of a tunnel from the shower inside his cell to a house nearly a mile away. The tunnel was equipped with lighting, ventilation and a motorcycle.
Weeks of digging and the removal of tons of dirt apparently went undetected, or ignored, by prison guards, who also failed to promptly raise the alarm when Guzman was no longer visible on the closed-circuit camera that monitored his cell.
Several prison officials were eventually fired or jailed for their role in the escape.
In recent months, residents of Sinaloa state, the cradle of Guzman’s cartel, have reported seeing Mexican special forces conducting raids, often with collateral damage.
Guzman’s earlier arrest, in 1993, occurred in Guatemala. He was placed in what was then Mexico’s maximum-security prison until he escaped in 2001, purportedly by hiding in a laundry cart, as the U.S. was preparing to extradite him.
As a fugitive for the next decade, Guzman became one of the most powerful drug lords in the world. Forbes magazine once estimated his fortune at more than $1 billion. He expanded his empire across the U.S. and to Europe and Australia — his cartel killing tens of thousands of people in the process, for crossing it or getting in the way. In Mexico, local government and security officials were on his payroll.
On Feb. 22, 2014, after 13 years on the lam, he was tracked down to an oceanfront apartment complex in the city of Mazatlan, also in Sinaloa, with his most recent wife, a former beauty queen, and twin daughters, who were born near Los Angeles in 2011.
He put up no resistance, and not a shot was fired.
In Friday’s shootout, however, he appeared to be much more a man on the run, surrounded by his gang and enmeshed in the violence of organized crime.
The U.S. government congratulated Mexico for the capture, with the Drug Enforcement Administration calling it “a victory for the rule of law.”
“The arrest is a significant achievement in our shared fight against transnational organized crime, violence, and drug trafficking,” the agency said in a statement. “The DEA and Mexico have a strong partnership and we will continue to support Mexico in its efforts to improve security for its citizens and continue to work together to respond to the evolving threats posed by transnational criminal organizations.”
Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch said: “Guzman’s latest attempt to escape has failed, and he will now have to answer for his alleged crimes, which have resulted in significant violence, suffering and corruption on multiple continents.”
FOR THE RECORD
Jan. 9, 8:51 a.m.: An earlier photo caption said that Guzman escaped in 2014. He escaped in 2015.
Times staff writer Wilkinson reported from Washington and special correspondents Bonello and Sanchez from Mexico City.
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