He was hiding in plain sight in a beach resort hotel in the Mexican Riviera town of Mazatlan.
He controlled of the international Sinaloa drug cartel. Six other cartels will try to take part of his territory. .
Maybe the most potent message of El Chapo’s arrest is how it undermines his most audacious myth — that he could never be caught again, unfindable in Mexico’s back country.
Guzman had been caught once before by Mexican authorities, in 2001, but he escaped from a high-security Mexican prison. Lore holds that he slipped out of the prison by hiding in a laundry basket.
His lieutenants have been killed or captured by Mexican authorities. Earlier police operations yielded a trove of intelligence, including cell phone and other data, a U.S. law enforcement official said. That helped Mexican authorities and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents hunting Guzman gain confidence in recent weeks that they could arrest him.
Sylvia Longmire, a former Air Force captain and California intelligence official who has studied the ultraviolent Mexican cartels extensively. “Taking a look at the day-to-day impact, the drugs are going to continue to flow … when the CEO is gone, the board of directors is still running the show. It would really take dismembering the entire organization to see a disruption.”
The top U.S. law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Americans were given less than a month to work closely and on the ground with the Mexican navy to capture the longtime fugitive, whose empire stretched from the streets here in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, throughout North America and to Europe, West Africa, Asia and Australia.
“The Mexican government gave us a set time, and we were right down to the wire — in fact, down to the last day,” said the U.S. official. “This couldn’t have been more dramatic, but the arrest was a credit to our long working relationship with Mexican marines, who led the operation.”
The arrest is considered bigger than the capture last July of Miguel Ángel Treviño, known as “40,” the leader of the Zetas paramilitary group, the organization known for its brutality and for its campaign of kidnapping and extortion along the Texas-Mexico border.
In the weeks-long operation led by Mexican marines, several top leaders of the Sinaloa cartel were captured in their home base of Culiacán, Sinaloa. One of the arrests took place in the home of Guzmán’s former wife.
Murillo Karám said Saturday that Guzmán escaped capture by two minutes when marine commandos were delayed by steel reinforcement that allowed him to escape through one of several tunnels at a location in Culiacán. Guzmán then fled by car to Mazatlán.
The Sinaloa cartel, also known as the Federation, is considered the godfather of Mexican drug cartels, going back to the days of Miguel Ángel Felix Gallardo, the architect of the organization and the man who groomed Guzmán from a young age, beginning in the 1980s.
The Sinaloa cartel grew into the wealthiest and most powerful cartel, one whose riches have corrupted generations of Mexican politicians and compromised its justice system.
The organization has smuggled billions of dollars’ worth of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States and has waged brutal wars with other Mexican gangs over turf and drug-trafficking routes, particularly here in Ciudad Juárez, which connects to major markets in Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles and beyond.
More than 11,000 people have been killed in recent years in Ciudad Juárez alone, the result of a war waged between Guzmán’s loyalists and allies-turned-rivals in the Juárez cartel.
Mexican communities have seen the trail of blood left by gunmen who fought in the name of Guzman. The druglord’s Sinaloa Cartel battled along the entire 2,000-mile Mexican border for space to smuggle marijuana, heroin, cocaine and crystal meth to a U.S. drug market estimated by the United Nations to be worth about $60 billion a year, half of which is believed to go to Mexican gangsters. Squads of assassins used assault rifles and grenade launchers to protect Guzman’s empire. At one scene in Nuevo Laredo in 2012, 14 bodies were hung from meat hooks, along with a note signed, “Attentively, Chapo. Remember I am your real daddy.”
With the arrest of Guzman, there is concern that junior lieutenants could fight to take over the Sinaloa cartel empire. The cartel’s second most powerful figure Ismael “Mayo” Zambada is a veteran trafficker in his sixties, who is believed to have distanced himself from the cartel wars of recent years. “Zambada is trying to avoid arrest himself, so it will be hard for him to exert control,” Vigil said. Another fear is of rivals pushing into Chapo’s territory. The Zetas, whose territorial bloodshed has reportedly left mass graves with hundreds of bodies, have long fought the Sinaloa Cartel. Another Sinaloan trafficker Hector Beltran Leyva has waged war with Guzman, leaving piles of severed heads and bullet ridden bodies in Sinaloa. “People are scared about more violence breaking out, of what reaction the cartels will have,” Valdez said.
While he still has to serve out his sentence in Mexico, several U.S. courts are seeking his extradition on racketeering and trafficking charges. By extraditing him, Mexico could avoid the security problems of holding Guzman in a Mexican jail, Vigil said. Mexico’s prisons have suffered from notorious escapes in recent years, including some with more than 100 inmates and others supported by helicopters. But Guzman’s lawyers will likely fight hard for him to stay in Mexico. “If Guzman is extradited to the United States,” Vigil said, “he will never see daylight again.”