MAZATLAN, Mexico (AP) — For 13 years Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman watched from the rugged mountains of western Mexico as authorities captured or killed the leaders of every group that challenged 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 on the inner circle of the world’s most-wanted drug lord.
The son of one of his two top henchmen, Ismael “Mayo” Zambada, was arrested at a border crossing in Nogales, Arizona in November as part of a sprawling, complex investigation involving as many as 100 wiretaps, according to his lawyer.
A month later, one of the Sinaloa cartel’s main lieutenants was gunned down by Mexican helicopter gunships in a resort town a few hours drive to the east. Less than two weeks passed before police at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam arrested one of the cartel’s top assassins, a man who handled transport and logistics for Guzman.
This month the noose started tightening. Federal forces began sweeping through Culiacan, capital of the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa – closing streets, raiding houses, seizing automatic weapons, drugs and money, and arresting a series of men Mexican officials carefully described to reporters as top officials for Zambada.
But the target was bigger.
On Feb. 13, a man known as “19,” whom officials called the new chief of assassins for Zambada, was arrested with two other men on the highway to the coastal resort city of Mazatlan. Four days later, a man described as a member of the Sinaloa cartel’s upper ranks was seized along with 4,000 hollowed-out cucumbers and bananas stuffed with cocaine. In the middle of this week, a 43-year-old known by the nickname “20” and described as Zambada’s chief of security, was arrested transporting more cocaine-stuffed produce.
By the middle of the week at least 10 Sinaloa henchmen had been seized.
A U.S. law enforcement official said Saturday that at least some were actually security for Guzman, and authorities used them to obtain information that helped lead to the head of the cartel. The official was not authorized to talk to journalists and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Agents learned that Guzman, 56, had started coming down from his isolated mountain hideouts to enjoy the comforts of Culiacan and Mazatlan, said Michael S. Vigil, a former senior DEA official who was briefed on the operation.
“That was a fatal error,” Vigil said.
Working on the information gleaned from Guzman’s bodyguards, Mexican marines swarmed the house of Guzman’s ex-wife but struggled to batter down the steel-reinforced door, according to Mexican authorities and former U.S. law-enforcement officials briefed on the operation.
As the marines forced their way in, Guzman fled through a secret door beneath a bathtub down a corrugated steel ladder into a network of tunnels and sewer canals that connect to six other houses in Culiacan, the officials said.
Guzman fled south to Mazatlan. On his heels, a team of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents set up a base of operations with Mexican marines in the city, according to the current U.S. law-enforcement official.
Early Saturday morning, Guzman’s reign came to an end without a shot fired. Marines closed the beachside road in front of the Miramar condominiums, a 10-story, pearl-colored building with white balconies overlooking the Pacific and a small pool in front.
Smashing down the door of an austerely decorated fourth-floor condo, they seized the country’s most-wanted man at 6:40 a.m., a few minutes after the sun rose.
A neighbor who declined to identify himself for fear of retaliation said the apartment had only been occupied for two days. An employee of the building’s cleaning staff said that clothes were strewn across the floor and bed in the condo, and humble domestic appliances – a microwave, a floor fan, a flat-screen TV on a small table – were left inside.
Photos of the apartment published by a local newspaper showed cheap and unglamorous furnishings. Inside the condo, the photos showed little food or liquor: just a couple of dozen eggs on a shelf. A bag from a low-end supermarket lay on the floor.
Guzman was caught with an unidentified woman, said one official not authorized to be quoted by name, who added that the DEA and Marshals Service were “heavily involved” in the capture. Mexican officials said, however, that Guzman was detained along with a man they identified as Carlos Manuel Hoo Ramirez..
A U.S. law-enforcement official with direct knowledge of the killing of Zambada’s main lieutenant in November described it as part of a concerted binational effort to decapitate the Sinaloa cartel. The organization became the focus of U.S. and Mexican attention after a string of arrests and slaying of the heads of other cartels, most notably the seizure of brutal Zetas cartel head Miguel Angel Trevino Morales in July.
“Who are the only big fish left in the country? We can’t just twiddle our thumbs,” said the official who was not authorized to speak to journalists and spoke on condition of anonymity. “Now we focus on the biggest elephant in the room. It’s by virtue of default.”
Guzman’s arrest appears certain to all but quash U.S. concerns that President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration has been reducing cooperation with U.S. law-enforcement, a hallmark of his predecessor Felipe Calderon’s six-year term.
“This shows that cooperation is working, and that it’s discreet and based on intelligence-gathering,” said Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. “This is, without a doubt, the most important success of Pena Nieto’s administration.”
By early afternoon, Guzman was marched across the tarmac of the Mexican marines’ hanger at the Mexico City airport.
The man who eluded Mexican authorities for more than a decade looked pudgy, bowed and middle-aged in a white button-down shirt and beltless black jeans.
After his 2001 escape in a laundry truck from a prison he came to control through bribery, Guzman was rumored to live everywhere from Argentina to Mexico’s “Golden Triangle,” a mountainous, marijuana-growing region straddling the northern states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua.
The Sinaloa Cartel grew deadlier and more powerful, taking over much of the lucrative trafficking routes along the U.S. border.
Guzman was hit with multiple federal drug trafficking indictments in the U.S. as his drug empire stretched throughout North America and extended branches into Europe and Australia. Guzman’s play for power against local cartels caused a bloodbath in Tijuana and made Ciudad Juarez one of the deadliest cities in the world.
In 2013, he was named “Public Enemy No. 1″ by the Chicago Crime Commission, only the second person to get that distinction after U.S. prohibition-era crime boss Al Capone.
He appeared in only a handful of photos during his years on the run, staring straight into the camera of an anonymous photographer and defiantly brandishing an automatic rifle.
On Saturday, as he was walked before the press, his hands were cuffed behind him and a masked marine pushed down his head with a black-gloved hand, as if to make clear that Guzman is now under state control.
Guzman said nothing, and looked subdued as he reappeared before the world for a few seconds before disappearing into the cargo bay of a helicopter waiting to take him to prison.
Spagat reported from San Diego, California. Weissenstein reported from Mexico City. Adriana Gomez Licon in Culiacan, Alicia A. Caldwell in Washington and Mark Stevenson and Katherine Corcoran in Mexico City contributed to this report.
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein