Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the man the U.S. has called the world’s most powerful drug trafficker, was captured in the beach town of Mazatlan, Mexico’s top prosecutor said.
Guzman was arrested this morning by Mexican authorities working with their U.S. counterparts, Mexico Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told reporters today at the Mexico City airport. He said 13 people were apprehended in all, and guns, a rocket launcher and 43 vehicles were seized. No shots were fired.
After the prosecutor’s remarks, security forces paraded a mustachioed Guzman across the airport tarmac onto a police helicopter, in front of the gathered press corps. He wore a white, button-down, long-sleeve shirt and dark jeans and looked at the ground as a marine held him by the scruff of the neck.
“This is huge,” Alejandro Hope, a former government intelligence officer and now a security analyst at the Mexican Competitiveness Institute, said in a telephone interview from Mexico City. “This is the end of the line for old-style organized crime in Mexico. It will be more decentralized with more gangs.”
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called the arrest a “landmark achievement.” The U.S. State Department had a bounty of as much as $5 million, and Mexico was offering 30 million pesos ($2.26 million) for his arrest.
Guzman gained fame in 2001 after escaping from a high-security prison and allegedly building up the 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.
Before his capture, Guzman had been moving among a series of properties connected by a network of tunnels to a drainage system, according to Murillo Karam. In a recent attempt to detain the alleged capo, authorities tried to break down a door reinforced with steel. In the time it took to break through, Guzman escaped, according to the prosecutor.
“This is a clear example of the effort we’re making in the country to disarm the criminal groups,” Murillo Karam said.
In their hunt for Guzman, federal forces refrained on several occasions from capturing him in public places to prevent civilian injuries, Murillo said, adding that no one was wounded in his arrest.
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.
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.”
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. The cartel’s operations span continents, according to Holder.
Guzman entered the drug trade in the 1980s and rose to direct the local cartel’s operations, according to Malcolm Beith, author of “The Last Narco: Inside the Hunt for El Chapo, the World’s Most Wanted Drug Lord.” Guzman’s rise was interrupted in 1993 when he was arrested in Guatemala and extradited to Mexico.
At Puente Grande prison in Jalisco state, Guzman bought off guards and inmates with funds provided by the cartel, according to Beith.
“Puente Grande became Chapo’s personal playground,” Beith wrote. Guzman and his allies were able to wander throughout the compound, throw parties and enjoy “smuggled alcohol, cocaine and marijuana, not to mention conjugal visits by women other than wives and girlfriends,” Beith said.
After Guzman’s escape, he returned to the Sinaloa Cartel, taking advantage of then-President Vicente Fox’s offensive on rival gangs.
His capture “legitimizes the federal government’s strategy,” said Hope, the former Mexico intelligence official. “It should also do away with rumors of supposed agreements with the state” not to target the Sinaloa cartel.