An informant had told them that what they were looking for was under the pool table. They moved it aside and went to work with a jackhammer. Then, a stroke of luck: One of them turned the knob of a faucet and suddenly the floor panel rose into the air — like a hydraulic lift in an auto shop, or something straight out of a Bond movie.
A metal staircase led down to a stunning discovery: Beneath the house, connecting to a warehouse in the U.S. 300 feet away, was an underground tunnel outfitted with lighting, air vents and tracks on the floor to transport carts full of drugs.
It was, at the time, unheard of, a new level of sophistication in the cross-border war on the Colombian and Mexican cartels that were sending tons of cocaine and marijuana north every year. "A masterpiece," retired Customs agent Terry Kirkpatrick, who was there that day, recalled of the tunnel that came to be known as "Cocaine Alley."
But, he added: "None of us ... looked at it with the vision that this would be the future of drug smuggling."
Nor did they know then who was behind it: The one they called "Shorty" because of his 5-foot-6 frame, a man who grew up poor and had no formal education but would rise from a small-time Mexican marijuana producer to lead the world's most powerful drug cartel.
The tunnel marked the dawn of a new, craftier and more deadly era in the drug war: the beginning of the reign of "El Chapo."
A week after his capture in the resort city of Mazatlan, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman sits in a cell in Mexico's highest-security prison, a sprawling complex surrounded by barbed-wire fences outside of Mexico City where he is held along with other high-profile drug traffickers.
It is a far cry from the life he lived as the head of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, and further still from his beginnings in the mountain village of La Tuna de Badiraguato, Sinaloa, on the country's Pacific coast. There, Guzman was one of at least six children of a man who supposedly raised cattle but, authorities have said, actually worked in the region's main industry — growing and smuggling opium and marijuana.
As a boy, Guzman was physically abused by his father, according to Michael Vigil, a former senior U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official. And yet, with no schooling to point him elsewhere, the young Guzman followed his father into the drug trade and began growing marijuana, operating independently from the man with whom he maintained an icy relationship.
By the late 1970s — when Guzman was still in his 20s — Mexican kingpin Hector Luis Palma Salazar placed him in charge of transporting drugs from Sinaloa to coastal cities on their way north to the U.S., according to "The Last Narco," a Guzman biography by journalist Malcolm Beith.
Low-key and less enamored of flashy homes and cars than his colleagues, Guzman rose quickly through the ranks. By the early 1980s, he was supervising logistics for Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the founder of the Guadalajara cartel. Guzman worked as a Gallardo lieutenant for years, then emerged as one of the dominant figures on the drug-trafficking scene as Gallardo was hunted by the DEA and eventually arrested for the 1985 murder of agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena.
"He shows up as an all of a sudden, overnight thing," said Edward Heath, who ran the DEA's Mexico office during the Camarena killing. "The guy was smart enough to pick up on how things get done."
Guzman was ruthless as well, said Heath. "If someone did not perform well or you become a threat, he would set 'em up. A lot of people got killed. A lot of people got sent to jail."
As he consolidated power, Guzman began showing a flair for inventive smuggling. According to U.S. prosecutors and federal indictments, he opened a business disguised as an air taxi service and used two Learjets to ferry drugs. He leased warehouses in Southern California, Chicago, Newark, N.J., and San Antonio to store his product.
In 1989, cocaine concealed as boxes of Mexican soap was shipped into Southern California. In 1992, Guzman and his men opened a hardware store near Los Angeles to import rolls of chicken wire mixed with hidden fiberglass compartments to store cocaine. At one point a truck driver was arrested in Mexico hauling 1,400 cases of jalapeno peppers bound for Los Angeles, each individual can containing a kilo of coke — 7.3 tons in all.