Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the alleged leader of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, was arrested by Mexican and U.S. authorities overnight in the beach town of Mazatlan, the Associated Press reported, citing a U.S. law enforcement official who asked not to be identified.
A press official for Mexico’s Interior Ministry declined to comment, as did Mark Johnson, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. The Mexican government has scheduled a news conference for 1 p.m. local time.
Guzman gained fame in 2001 after escaping from a high security prison and building up his Sinaloa Cartel, named after his home state and known for beheading its enemies or hanging their bodies in public places. These tactics, coupled with his business acumen, helped him build a personal fortune of about $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
The arrest is “100 percent confirmed,” said Mike Vigil, a retired head of international operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration, in a telephone interview from Washington.
Vigil said Mexico’s Navy began a series of house raids in Sinaloa that led to Guzman’s capture.
The military investigation “became a nuclear weapon and mushroomed until it enveloped him,” Vigil said in a phone interview from Washington. “Most traffickers become complacent.”
Since the 1990s, the Sinaloa Cartel has fought with almost all Mexico’s major drug cartels, including a gang founded by former elite soldiers known as the Zetas. The violence escalated after December 2006 when then-President Felipe Calderon mobilized the army to battle the cartels.
“This is a big deal, if confirmed,” James R. Jones, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico at the time the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect, said in a telephone interview. “It disrupts a very strong and violent drug organization. It doesn’t dismantle the organization, and without his leadership they may splinter, but this clearly weakens it.”
Guzman, who is in his 50s, overcame a poor, rural upbringing with limited education to become what the U.S. Treasury labeled in January 2012 as the “the world’s most powerful drug trafficker.”
In 1993, Guzman was extradited from Guatemala to Mexico where he was sentenced to 20 years in jail. He was facing more charges related to drug trafficking when he escaped.
The Sinaloa Cartel smuggles cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines and heroin, said Jeffrey Scott, a special agent for the DEA in Washington. It operates in the U.S. and is thought to have presence in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Peru, he said.
Guzman and the Sinaloa Cartel were identified by the president as significant foreign narcotics traffickers pursuant to the Kingpin Act.