MEXICO CITY — Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the man who supplied more illegal drugs to the United States than anyone else on Earth, was captured by Mexican Navy commandos without a shot early Saturday morning in the Pacific coast resort town of Mazatlan, according to U.S. and Mexican authorities.
The arrest of the world’s most-wanted drug lord was electrifying news in Mexico and a major political victory for its president, Enrique Peña Nieto. On Saturday afternoon, Peña Nieto confirmed the capture in a tweet and thanked his security forces. “Congratulations to all,” he wrote.
After 13 years on the lam, Guzmán was found, with the help of information provided by U.S. law enforcement officials, in a light-yellow, multistory condo building known as Miramar, several blocks off the beach in Mazatlan. He was arrested, flown to Mexico City and frog-marched by the back of the neck in front of TV cameras across a navy-base tarmac to prove he had finally been found.
The arrest challenges two central criticisms of the Mexican government: that security cooperation with the United States had deteriorated, and that it had eased off on Guzmán’s cartel in favor of other targets. U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called the arrest a “landmark achievement, and a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States.”
Guzmán ran an organized crime empire that spanned several continents and earned billions of dollars. He built a shipping and transport empire that plied air, sea and roads to sate the world’s demand for cocaine, heroin and marijuana. From Los Angeles warehouses to Chicago barrios, his network criss-crossed America to supply customers.
His Sinaloa cartel is the grandfather of Mexican drug-running organizations, the wealthiest and most powerful corporation in the business, whose riches have corrupted generations of Mexican politicians and corroded the nation’s democracy.
“He’s a legend,” security analyst Jorge Chabat said in Mexico City. “He is the jewel of the crown.”
Authorities had been closing in on Guzmán and his associates over the past few weeks with operations in his home state of Sinaloa, a sliver of land on the Pacific coast. Several of his associates had been arrested, and authorities found houses with fortified-steel doors and linked by sewer-system tunnels used by the cartel.
In a brief news conference announcing his capture, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said that the arrest was performed “impeccably.” “There was not one bit of damage or anyone injured,” he said.
Guzmán separated himself from other drug lords because of his longevity and ability to evade the law for years. Captured in Guatemala in 1993, Guzmán was sent to Mexico’s high-security Puente Grande prison, only to escape in 2001, on the eve of his extradition to the United States. Legend has it that he sneaked out in a laundry cart.
Guzmán has been on the run ever since, periodically surfacing in Mexican beach resorts, Central American villages, even South America, only to vanish before authorities arrived.
“Chapo Guzmán has been that mythical narco-ghost,” said David Gaddis, former chief of enforcement operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration who runs G-Global Protection Solutions, a security consultancy. “He became one of these isolated traffickers who seemed to be ‘untouchable.’ ”
With each passing year, he became wealthier and more powerful, with a reputation comparable only to fallen Colombia drug lord Pablo Escobar. He had a beauty-queen wife, and people sang songs and told tall tales of his exploits, elevating him to almost folk-hero status. Under Mexico’s previous president, Felipe Calderón, the appetite to capture Guzmán was so ravenous that Mexico ran at least three full-time kill-capture units dedicated solely to pursuing him.
Yet Guzmán was not flashy or flamboyant, quietly building his billion-dollar narcotics empire through well-placed bribes and overwhelming firepower. He directed an army of hit men who murdered thousands. His push to take control of the border city of Ciudad Juarez produced the drug war’s biggest bloodbath. Unlike Mexico’s widely despised, upstart crime syndicates such as Los Zetas or the Knights Templar, his Sinaloa cartel largely eschewed extortion and kidnapping. Instead, it focused on the lucrative business of delivering vast quantities of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine into the United States.
Guzmán was born into the trade. The son of a dirt-poor peasant farmer, he grew up in the “Golden Triangle” region of Mexico’s Sierra Madre range, the heart of North American marijuana and opium poppy production. He didn’t make it past third grade but was mentored by the local drug lords of the era, and set himself apart as a smart operator and fearless gunman.
The same remote mountain communities and tight-lipped locals have helped him elude capture for so long, despite all-out efforts by U.S. and Mexican authorities to catch him. He was said to move between a network of ranches and hideouts high in the mountains, where farmers referred to the 5-6 Guzmán in hushed voices as “El Senor,” meaning “The Boss,” or “The Lord,” and not by his popular nickname, “Chapo,” meaning “Shorty.”
No one could have expected that he would have been taken so easily.
But security analysts expect the Sinaloa cartel’s drug business to survive the arrest. Leadership of the Sinaloa cartel has long been shared with Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who proved himself capable of running the organization in the past.
“During El Chapo’s imprisonment [between 1993 and 2001], El Mayo helped keep the Sinaloa cartel together,” said George Grayson, a drug-war expert at the College of William & Mary who has written several books about Mexican cartels. “He will step into Chapo’s boots.”
Zambada’s son, Vicente, is facing a federal grand jury indictment in Chicago, where prosecutors have named Guzmán “public enemy number one” — a title last held by Al Capone. It’s not clear whether information gleaned from the younger Zambada, who claims that he was working as a DEA informant at the time of his 2009 arrest in Mexico City, was used to track down Guzmán.
Authorities had been ratcheting up pressure on the Sinaloa cartel in recent weeks by busting more than a dozen mid-level members. The raids have also captured 43 vehicles, 19 of them armored, more than 100 guns, rocket launchers and 16 houses used by the cartel, Karam said.
“Now’s the time, they’ve got to pile on and do as much damage as they possibly can before the cartel’s succession plan is fully implemented” said Mike Braun, the DEA’s former chief of operations and a managing partner at SGI Global, a security consultancy. “If you do it, and you do it right, you can significantly disrupt, if not totally dismantle, one of these groups over two to three years.”
Guzmán’s arrest had the potential to bolster Peña Nieto’s image as a tough-on-crime leader. Since taking over more than a year ago, his administration sought to distance itself from the belligerent rhetoric of Calderón. Peña Nieto said that reducing violence, rather than capturing drug lords, should be the priority.
And yet Peña Nieto has captured some of the biggest players in the game, including Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, known as Z-40, who ran the exceptionally violent Zetas cartel.
When Peña Nieto was elected, his administration pulled back from the close security partnership with the United States, and it’s taken months to rebuild the relationship. But Guzmán’s capture suggests that authorities from both countries share intelligence on important cases.
“For this administration, it took them a year . . . to really determine what their strategy was going to be,” Braun said. “They may have made a mistake by having their security machine grind to a halt while they did that. But it appears, hopefully at least, that they’re headed in the right direction right now.”
Ernesto Londoño, Sari Horwitz and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.