Mexico City • Mexican authorities captured the world’s most powerful drug lord in a resort city Saturday after a massive search through the home state of the legendary capo whose global organization is the leading supplier of cocaine to the United States.
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, 56, looked pudgy, bowed and much like his wanted photos when he arrived in Mexico City from Mazatlan in Sinaloa state. He was marched by masked marines across the airport tarmac to a helicopter waiting to whisk him to jail.
Guzman was arrested by the Mexican marines at 6:40 a.m. in a high-rise condominium fronting the Pacific. He was caught with an unidentified woman, said one official not authorized to be quoted by name, who added that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Marshals Service were "heavily involved" in the capture.
A federal law enforcement official said intelligence from a Homeland Security Department investigation also helped lead U.S. and Mexican authorities to his whereabouts.
The official was authorized to discuss details of the arrest by name. No shots were fired.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the capture a "victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States."
Mexican authorities, based on a series of arrests in recent months, got wind that Guzman was moving around Culiacan, capital of his home state for which the cartel is named.
Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam described an operation that took place between Feb. 13 and 17 focused on seven homes connected by tunnels and to the city’s sewer system.
He said they had Guzman in their sights several times during that period but were unable to mount an operation earlier because of possible risks to the general public. The house doors were reinforced with steel, which delayed entry by law enforcement, presumably allowing Guzman to flee several attempts at his capture before Saturday.
Murillo Karam didn’t say how authorities traced him to Mazatlan.
Guzman faces multiple federal drug trafficking indictments in the U.S. and is on the DEA’s most-wanted list. His drug empire stretches throughout North America and reaches as far away as Europe and Australia. His cartel has been heavily involved in the bloody drug war that has torn through parts of Mexico for the last several years.
His arrest followed the takedown of several top Sinaloa operatives in the last few months and at least 10 mid-level cartel members in the last week. The information leading to Guzman was gleaned from those arrested, said Michael S. Vigil, a former senior DEA official who was briefed on the operation.
The Mexican navy raided the Culiacan house of Guzman’s ex-wife, Griselda Lopez, earlier this week and found a cache of weapons and a tunnel in one of the rooms that led to the city’s sewer system, leading authorities to believe Guzman barely escaped, Vigil said.
As more people were arrested, more homes were raided.
"It became like a nuclear explosion where the mushroom started to expand throughout the city of Culiacan," Vigil said.
Authorities learned that Guzman fled to nearby Mazatlan. He was arrested at the Miramar condominiums, a 10-story, pearl-colored building with white balconies overlooking the Pacific and a small pool in front. The building is one of dozens of relatively modest, upper-middle-class developments on the Mazatlan coastal promenade, with a couple of simple couches in the lobby and a bare cement staircase leading up to the condominiums.
"He got tired of living up in the mountains and not being able to enjoy the comforts of his wealth. He became complacent and starting coming into the city of Culiacan and Mazatlan. That was a fatal error," said Vigil, adding that Guzman was arrested with "a few" of his bodyguards nearby.
One American retiree living in the building, who did not want to give his name, said he has lived there for two years and never heard or saw anything unusual.
Vigil said Mexico may decide to extradite Guzman to the U.S. to avoid any possibility that he escapes from prison again, as he did in 2001 in a laundry truck — a feat that fed his larger-than-life persona.
"It would be a massive black eye on the (Mexican) government if he is able to escape again. That’s the only reason they would turn him over," Vigil said.
Because insiders aided his escape, rumors circulated for years that he was helped and protected by former Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s government, which vanquished some of his top rivals.Next Page >
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.