Wiretaps, aides led to Mexican drug lord’s arrest
CULIACAN, MEXICO • As Mexican troops forced their way into Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman’s main hideout in Culiacan, the country’s most powerful drug lord sneaked out of the house through an escape tunnel beneath the bathtub.
Mexican marines working with U.S. authorities chased him but lost the man known as "Shorty" in a maze of tunnels under the city, a U.S. government official and a senior law enforcement official told The Associated Press on Sunday.
It would be a short-lived escape for Guzman, who was captured early Saturday hiding out in a condominium in Mazatlan, a beach resort town on Mexico’s Pacific Coast.
He had a military-style assault rifle with him but didn’t fire a shot, the officials said. His beauty queen wife, Emma Coronel, was with him when the manhunt for one of the world’s most wanted drug traffickers ended.
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss specific details of how U.S. authorities tracked down Guzman.
For 13 years Guzman watched from western Mexico’s rugged mountains as authorities captured or killed the leaders of every group challenging his Sinaloa cartel’s spot at the top of global drug trafficking.
Unscathed and his legend growing, the stocky son of a peasant farmer grabbed a slot on the Forbes’ billionaires’ list and a folkloric status as the capo who grew too powerful to catch. Then, late last year, authorities started closing in on the inner circle of the world’s most-wanted drug lord. Bit by bit, they got closer to the crime boss.
Then on Feb. 16, investigators from Mexico along with the Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement caught the break they badly needed when they tracked a cellphone to one of the Culiacan stash houses Guzman used to elude capture.
The phone was connected to his communications chief, Carlos Manuel Ramirez, whose nickname is Condor. By the next day Mexican authorities arrested one of Guzman’s top couriers, who promptly provided details of the stash houses Guzman and his associates had been using, the officials said.
At each house, the Mexican military found the same thing: steel reinforced doors and an escape hatch below the bathtubs. Each hatch led to a series of interconnected tunnels in the city’s drainage system.
The officials said three tons of drugs, suspected to be cocaine and methamphetamine, were found at one of the stash houses.
An AP reporter who walked through one of the tunnels had to dismount into a canal and stoop to enter the drain pipe, which was filled with water and mud and smelled of sewage. About 700 meters (yards) in, a trap door was open, revealing a newly constructed tunnel. Large and lined with wood panels like a cabin, the passage had lighting and air conditioning. At the end of the tunnel was a blue ladder attached to the wall that led to one of the houses Mexican authorities say Guzman used as a hideout.
A day after troops narrowly missed Guzman in Culiacan, top aide Manuel Lopez Ozorio was arrested. The officials said he told investigators that he picked up Guzman, Ramirez and a woman from a drainage pipe and helped them flee to Mazatlan.
A wiretap being monitored by ICE agents in southern Arizona provided the final clue, helping track Guzman to the beachfront condo, the officials said.
The ICE wiretap proved the most crucial lead late last week as other wiretaps became useless as Guzman and his associates reacted to coming so close to being caught.
"It just all came together and we got the right people to flip and we were up on good wire," the government official said. "The ICE wire was the last one standing. That wire in Nogales. That got him (Guzman) inside that hotel."
Alonzo Pena, a former senior official at ICE, said wiretaps in Arizona led authorities to the Culiacan house of Guzman’s ex-wife, Griselda Lopez, and to the Mazatlan hotel where Guzman was arrested.
The ICE investigation started about a year ago with a tip from the agency’s Atlanta office that someone was crossing the border with about $100,000 at a time, said Pena, who was briefed on the investigation. That person led investigators to another cartel operative, believed to be an aircraft broker, and that allowed them to locate Guzman’s communications equipment.