Mexico’s Sinaloa drug chief arrested
MEXICO CITY — The head of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel who was the world’s most powerful drug lord was captured overnight by U.S. and Mexican authorities at a hotel in Mazatlan, Mexico, The Associated Press had learned, ending a bloody decades-long career that terrorized swaths of the country.
A senior U.S. law enforcement official said Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was taken alive overnight by Mexican marines in the beach resort town. The official was not authorized to discuss the arrest and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Guzman, 56, was found with an unidentified woman. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Marshals Service were “heavily involved” in the capture, the official said. No shots were fired.
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.
A legendary outlaw, Guzman had been pursued for several weeks. His arrest comes on the heels of 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 son of Sinaloa’s co-leader and Guzman’s partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, was arrested in November after entering Arizona, where he had an appointment with U.S. immigration authorities to arrange legal status for his wife.
The following month, Zambada’s main lieutenant was killed as Mexican helicopter gunships sprayed bullets at his mansion in the Gulf of California resort of Puerto Penasco in a four-hour gunbattle. Days later, police in the Netherlands arrested Zambada’s flamboyant top enforcer as he arrived in Amsterdam.
Guzman’s capture ended a long and storied manhunt. He was rumored to live everywhere from Argentina to Guatemala since he slipped out in 2001 from prison in a laundry truck — a storied feat that fed his larger-than-life persona. 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.
In more than a decade on the run, Guzman transformed himself from a middling Mexican capo into arguably the most powerful drug trafficker in the world. His fortune has grown to more than $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which listed him among the “World’s Most Powerful People” and ranked him above the presidents of France and Venezuela.
His Sinaloa Cartel grew bloodier and more powerful, taking over much of the lucrative trafficking routes along the U.S. border, including such prized cities as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. Guzman’s play for power against local cartels caused a bloodbath in Tijuana and made Juarez one of the deadliest cities in the world. In little more than a year, Mexico’s biggest marijuana bust, 134 tons, and its biggest cultivation were tied to Sinaloa, as were a giant underground methamphetamine lab in western Mexico and hundreds of tons of precursor chemicals seized in Mexico and Guatemala.
His cartel’s tentacles now extend as far as Australia thanks to a sophisticated, international distribution system for cocaine and methamphetamines.
Guzman did all that with a $7 million bounty on his head and while evading thousands of law enforcement agents from the U.S. and other countries devoted to his capture. A U.S. federal indictment unsealed in San Diego in 1995 charges Guzman and 22 members of his organization with conspiracy to import over eight tons of cocaine and money laundering. A provisional arrest warrant was issued as a result of the indictment, according to the state department.
Guzman is still celebrated in folk songs and is said to have enjoyed deep protection from humble villagers in the rugged hills of Sinaloa and Durango where he has hidden from authorities. He is also thought to have contacts inside law enforcement that helped him evade capture, including a near-miss in February 2012 in the southern Baja California resort of Cabo San Lucas just after an international meeting of foreign ministers. He was vacationing in Cabo during a visit by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“There’s no drug-trafficking organization in Mexico with the scope, the savvy, the operational ability, expertise and knowledge as the Sinaloa cartel,” said one former U.S. law enforcement official, who couldn’t be quoted by name for security reasons. “You’ve kind of lined yourself up the New York Yankees of the drug trafficking world.”
More than 70,000 people have been killed in drug violence since former President Calderon deployed thousands of soldiers to drug hotspots upon taking office on Dec. 1, 2006. Many say his government’s assault on drug cartels and arrest of kingpins actually fueled the growth of Sinaloa and its major rival, the Zetas, which are now going head-to-heard for lucrative territory.
The two are battling for Nuevo Laredo, a play Guzman lost to the Zetas in 2005, and hitting each other deep inside their respective territories. Sinaloa took over a key Zeta port in Veracruz, while bands of Zetas have attacked their rival deep inside the cartel’s home, western Sinaloa and Jalisco states.