El Chapo, Most-Wanted Drug Lord, Is Captured

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edited February 2014 in The Social Lounge
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MEXICO CITY — Early on Saturday, dozens of soldiers and police officers descended on a hotel-condominium tower in Mazatlán, Mexico, a beach resort known as much as a hangout for drug traffickers as for its seafood and surf.

The forces were following yet another tip about the whereabouts of the trafficker Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, who, to the utter frustration of American and Mexican pursuers, had eluded such raids for 13 years since escaping from prison in a laundry cart. With an army of guards and lethally enforced loyalty, he reigned over a worldwide, multibillion-dollar drug empire that supplied much of the illicit drugs to the United States even as the authorities tried in vain to find him.

This time, however, Mr. Guzmán did not slip out a door, disappear into the night or prove to be absent, as he had in so many previous attempts to apprehend him. Mexican marines and the police, aided by information from the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States Marshals Service, took him into custody without firing a shot and whisked him away, according to American officials.

He faces a slew of drug trafficking and organized crime charges here and in the United States, which had offered $5 million for information leading to his arrest and had sought his extradition in the past.

Joaquín Guzmán Loera after his capture.
Mr. Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel is considered the largest and most powerful trafficking organization, with a reach as far as Europe and Asia, and has been a main combatant in a spasm of violence in recent years that has left tens of thousands dead in Mexico in recent years.

“Big strike,” said former President Felipe Calderón on Twitter; he had made cracking down on drug gangs a hallmark of his tenure.

It remains to be seen if the arrest will interrupt Mexico’s thriving drug trade. The capture of killing of a drug lord sometimes unleashes more violence as internal feuds break out and rivals attack. And given the efficiency of the Sinaloa Cartel, it is possible the group will manage a smooth transition to a new leader and simply continue with business as usual.

“The takedown of Chapo Guzmán is a thorn in the side of the Sinaloa cartel, but not a dagger in its heart,” said George Grayson, a professor at the College of William and Mary who studies the drug war.

He and other analysts said Mr. Guzmán had ample time to groom a successor.

Over time, as he eluded capture, his legend and the mystery of his whereabouts grew. He had been rumored to be in Guatemala, Argentina, Bolivia, and even as Mr. Calderón once speculated, in the United States.

But in the end, he was captured doing what so many cartel bosses do: having a party in Mazatlán.

Few details were available early on Saturday, but a picture of Mr. Guzmán, who appeaered to be handcuffed and with a few cuts on his face and torso, circulated among law enforcement officials. He has been on the run so long that there was uncertainty about what he looked like, but American officials believed the Mexicans had the right man in custody.

The Mexican authorities were performing DNA tests on him to confirm his identity.

In Mazatlán, residents reported seeing a long convoy of Mexican Navy trucks arrive at the hotel-condo tower facing the sea early on Saturday morning. Witnesses said the trucks cut off traffic to the area — on and around the city’s main oceanfront boulevard — as the forces completed what looked like a high-profile operation.

Only later did it become apparent that Mr. Guzmán had been caught, causing great concern for some. At a breakfast gathering for local businessmen, a few attendees got up and left immediately upon hearing the news, according to a witness. Others said they were scared about what would come next.

“It’s bad news for Mazatlán because the relative calm we’ve been living in could be severely disrupted,” said one of the men at the breakfast. “He was keeping the peace.”

Over the years he alluded arrest, Mr. Guzmán took on near-mythic status. He landed on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people and his alleged exploits became legendary. He picked up the tab for entire restaurants, or so the stories go, to ensure diners would remain silent about his outings. According to a leaked diplomatic cable, he surrounded himself with an entourage of 300 armed men for protection. And narcocorridos, folk ballads in tribute to drug lords, were sung in his honor.

It seemed as if he was always tipped off or managed to slink away just as Mexican forces, often relying on American intelligence, closed in several times in the past few years.

In 2012, it appeared he was hiding in a mansion in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur, around the time that Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the secretary of state, met with foreign ministers there. A raid the next day failed to capture him.

While Mr. Guzmán is the most prominent drug lord in Mexico to fall, the practical effect of his capture remained unclear. Although he had remained the head of the Sinaloa cartel, security analysts have long suspected that much of the day-to-day management fell to subordinates who remain at large.

Another powerful group, the Zetas, has emerged with brutal violence to battle Mr. Guzmán’s organization, raising questions about whether the focus on dismantling that group gave Mr. Guzmán something of a free pass.

Still, Mr. Guzmán’s fall carried a potent symbolic boost for Mexican security forces, which have killed or captured 25 of the 37 most-wanted organized crime leaders announced in 2010.

Mr. Guzmán boasted a rags-to-riches story that only fed the mythology surrounding him. He was born in poverty in the foothills of the Sierra Madre in northwestern Sinaloa State and dropped out of school by third grade. His first foray into drug smuggling came in the late 1980s, when, according to the State Department, he began working for Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, once Mexico’s biggest ? dealer, as an air logistics expert.

Mr. Guzmán astutely exploited the ? boom in the United States at the time, making valuable contacts along the transport chain from Barranquilla, in Colombia, to Arizona.

By the time the Mexican authorities captured Mr. Félix Gallardo in 1989, Mr. Guzmán had already inherited one of his smuggling routes and began forming his own, mushrooming cartel.

He was charged in the United States with money laundering and racketeering in March 1993 and three months later he was arrested and convicted on drug and homicide charges and sentenced to 20 years in prison in Mexico. He defended himself by saying he was a farmer and merchant earning approximately $6,000 monthly.

As American investigations continued, the drug and racketeering indictments piled up. One in 1994 said Mr. Guzmán continued operating his organization through a brother, Arturo Guzmán Loera, while in prison in Mexico, arranging ? shipments from South America to the United States.

Then, in January 2001, Mr. Guzmán’s criminal career took a stunning turn. He escaped from the maximum-security prison in Guadalajara, the heart of Mr. Félix Gallardo’s cartel operations, when he was wheeled out in a laundry cart. The authorities suspected prison officials helped him escape.

In the past year, American and Mexican authorities stepped up sanctions to pressure the Guzmán family, but the Sinaloa cartel continued to grow, expanding into marijuana and heroin.

In the end, Mr. Guzmán’s fall may hardly mean the end of his empire. There simply may be “a redistribution of power,” said Malcolm Beith, a journalist who wrote “The Last Narco,” describing the hunt for Mr. Guzmán.