Arrest of alleged kingpin seen as blow to Sinaloa cartel

SAN DIEGO — Alleged drug kingpin Victor Emilio Cazares, among the most wanted trafficking suspects in the United States, has been arrested in Mexico, U.S. and Mexican officials say, despite having changed his appearance through plastic surgery.

A senior U.S. law enforcement official in Mexico confirmed this week that Cazares was captured April 8 at a highway checkpoint near the western city of Guadalajara. Mexican authorities on Friday confirmed Cazares was in custody.

Mexican authorities did not make the arrest public at the time, and it has not been previously reported. Cazares, 48, is believed to be a key lieutenant of Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel. The arrest is seen as a blow to the sprawling criminal organization, the most powerful in Mexico.

Cazares is charged with running a vast drug-distribution network featured in a Times series last year, “Inside the Cartel.” U.S. law enforcement sources said he was nabbed by Mexican authorities with the help of U.S. federal agents. Federal prosecutors in San Diego, where Cazares was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2007, are seeking his extradition.

Mexican police had trouble identifying Cazares because he had undergone plastic surgery, the sources said. Though Cazares kept a low profile in Mexico, his photograph appeared on a widely circulated list of Mexico’s most wanted drug traffickers distributed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Cazares eventually acknowledged his identity to Mexican officials who were holding him. Those officials also confirmed his identity through photos and fingerprint information from the U.S., where Cazares has two drug-trafficking convictions.

Cazares, in a photograph taken at the scene of the arrest, appears much younger than his age. His once straight hair is curly, he has a grizzled beard and is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Rockers.”

“It looks like he belongs in Venice Beach, surfing,” said one official familiar with the investigation.

It is not unheard-of for Mexican drug traffickers to go under the knife to obscure their identities. In the most infamous case, drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes, nicknamed “Lord of the Skies,” died in 1997 after extensive surgery to alter his appearance, including liposuction. Two of the doctors involved in the operation were later tortured and killed.

The secrecy surrounding Cazares’ arrest is unusual. According to U.S. sources, Mexican counterparts said they refrained from announcing the capture to comply with an electoral law in Mexico that seeks to prevent the government from influencing the outcome of an election campaign by touting its actions. With a presidential contest underway, some Mexican agencies, including the federal police, have stopped issuing news releases, though others have continued to make announcements. Mexicans will vote in July.

President Felipe Calderon, who launched what he calls an all-out fight against drug cartels in 2006, has been accused of going easy on the Sinaloa group while aggressively pursuing its rivals. Calderon’s conservative National Action Party, or PAN, faces wide popular discontent over the drug violence that has killed more than 50,000 people since Calderon came to power.

Cazares is among a string of alleged Sinaloa underlings and associates arrested in recent months. A top-ranking Guzman ally, Ignacio “Nacho” Coronel, was killed by army troops near Guadalajara in 2010. But the Mexican government has yet to capture Guzman, whom Forbes magazine lists among the world’s wealthiest people.

Cazares is charged with running a distribution network that stretched from the state of Sinaloa in northwestern Mexico to dozens of cities across the U.S. In the Los Angeles area, about 20 distribution cells were linked to his alleged ring. He allegedly oversaw operations from a 25-acre estate outside Culiacan, the Sinaloa capital, that featured a twin-towered church and two man-made lakes.

In 1995, while living in Bell, outside Los Angeles, Cazares was arrested with a bag of cocaine and sentenced to two years in prison. He eventually returned to Mexico. U.S. authorities estimate that the group allegedly run by Cazares smuggled at least 40 tons of cocaine across the border from 2004 to 2007, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. A DEA-led 20-month investigation yielded more than 400 arrests.

Cazares eluded capture more than once. In 2007, Mexican authorities spotted him in downtown Culiacan but didn’t act because he was protected by 20 heavily armed guards. A few months later, Mexican soldiers descended on his estate, but Cazares slipped away before the raid.

During his years as a fugitive, he was believed to have shuttled between hide-outs in Sinaloa and Jalisco.

In 2009, a woman believed to be his wife was killed in Sinaloa when her car was intercepted by two carloads of gunmen. In 2008, his nephew and Guzman’s son were killed by gunmen in a parking lot in Culiacan.

It’s unclear how authorities caught up with Cazares. In other hunts for trafficking suspects, U.S. authorities have relied on informants to provide tips. U.S. authorities had offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to Cazares’ arrest.

Cazares’ sister, Blanca, also faces drug charges in the U.S. She is suspected of laundering drug proceeds for the Sinaloa group, in part by using tainted dollars to buy and import silk from Asia and then resell it for pesos in Mexico, U.S. federal investigators say.

In recent months, Guzman’s organization has faced an increasingly deadly challenge in various parts of the country from the Zetas, a criminal gang known for beheading and dismembering its victims.

Guzman and his allies have sought to control the colonial-era city of Guadalajara and the surrounding state of Jalisco in the midst of a turf war that has intensified since Coronel was slain by Mexican soldiers in a suburb known as Zapopan.

Last week, killers dumped parts of at least 18 bodies on the road between Guadalajara and Lake Chapala, a scenic area that is home to thousands of U.S. retirees.

Marosi reported from San Diego and Ellingwood from Mexico City.