The man widely believed to be Mexico’s top drug trafficker and the target of gunmen who mistakenly killed a cardinal and six other people at the Guadalajara airport last month has been arrested, Mexican Atty. Gen. Jorge Carpizo announced Thursday.
Joaquin (El Chapo) Guzman was detained at noon Wednesday in Guatemala close to the Mexican border and turned over to Mexican authorities at the Talisman Bridge near Tapachula, along with five other suspected members of his organization, authorities said.
Guzman was wanted on charges of drug trafficking, murder and kidnaping. Displayed to reporters Thursday, he denied the charges. He added in mocking tones that he is just a corn and bean farmer who was sightseeing in Guatemala.
Guzman’s drug organization recently has been moving in on the Tijuana territory controlled by his rivals, brothers by the name of Arellano. Authorities believe he was responsible for the 1,500-foot Tijuana-to-San Diego tunnel, intended for smuggling drugs, that they discovered earlier this month.
Such activity was clear evidence of the causes of a turf war that in the past year has left more than 20 people dead in a series of spectacular machine-gun attacks. The most recent of those attacks, the May 24 airport shooting, led to the death of Guadalajara’s cardinal, Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo. Gunmen believed to have been hired by the Arellanos to kill Guzman shot the cardinal by mistake, then escaped to Tijuana on a commercial flight.
The incident focused international attention on the growing violence and corruption associated with the drug trade here, inviting comparisons with Colombia and Italy.
Embarrassed authorities offered a $5-million reward for information leading to the arrest of three of the four Arellanos, Guzman and his partner Hector Luis (El Guero) Palma. The other four have not been arrested. Authorities would not say whether the reward money for Guzman has been claimed.
“The Mexican government has shown its ability to respond to the shameful events that have moved the entire nation and will continue to respond with the effectiveness needed in these cases,” Carpizo said, reading from a prepared statement. “The current investigation shows that it is possible to halt impunity and lack of public safety.”
Authorities believe that from their headquarters in Sinaloa, Guzman and Palma ran a full-service narcotics network, supplying customers in the United States and Europe with Mexican marijuana, Colombian cocaine and Thai heroine.
Guzman ran afoul of the cocaine multimillionaire Arellano brothers when he began moving drugs across the border at Tijuana. The tortured bodies of six of his lieutenants were found on a Baja California highway early last year.
Guzman retaliated with a commando-style raid on a Puerto Vallarta discotheque that left another half-dozen people dead. The presumed target, the youngest Arellano brother, escaped.
Then came the airport attack that outraged Mexicans, who are fed up with the government’s seeming inability to control the escalating violence and police complicity in the drug trade. A total of 22 people have been arrested in connection with the incident, including seven state police officers.
Under police questioning, Guzman said he was at the Guadalajara airport at the time of the shooting. He said a companion saw armed men and warned him. Guzman said he then recognized two of the Arellano brothers. In the confusion, he escaped in a taxi. The next day, he said, he drove to Mexico City and, two days later, to San Cristobal de las Casas in the mountains of Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas.
For the past two months, 250 Mexican federal police have been working with Guatemalan and Salvadoran authorities to investigate a suspected cross-border ring that Guzman is believed to control.
“We already knew who his associates were and where his safehouses were,” a source close to the investigation said. “We suspected he would go there, and we just kept tightening the noose.”
Suspecting that he would try to cross the porous border between Guatemala and Mexico, police here alerted their southern counterparts.
The Guatemalans detained Guzman and five people that authorities say were his inner circle, including his companion, Rocio del Villar Becerra.
Meanwhile, federal agents in San Diego reported Thursday that they have arrested a suspect being sought by Mexican investigators in the cardinal’s death. Investigators in Operation Alliance, a multi-agency drug unit, came across Juan Carlos Mendoza Castillo, 21, at a house in suburban Chula Vista while working on a case Wednesday night. They recognized the fugitive from a photo supplied by Mexican authorities, according to spokesman Jack Hook.
Mendoza, who was in the United States illegally and was allegedly a member of the Guadalajara assassination team, was turned over to Mexican federal judicial police at the border, authorities said.
Times staff writer Sebastian Rotella, in San Diego, contributed to this report.