MEXICO CITY — The head of Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel who was the world’s most powerful drug lord was captured overnight by U.S. and Mexican authorities at a condominium in Mazatlan, Mexico, The Associated Press learned Saturday, ending a bloody decades-long career that terrorized swaths of the country.
A senior U.S. law enforcement official said Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was taken alive overnight by Mexican marines in the beach resort town. The official was not authorized to discuss the arrest and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Guzman, 56, was found with an unidentified woman. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Marshals Service were “heavily involved” in the capture, the official said. No shots were fired.
Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office confirmed a capture on Saturday but would not say whether it was Guzman.
“This is a huge success for Mexican authorities,” said Samuel Gonzalez, a former anti-drug prosecutor in Mexico, “that after so many years, this guy will return to prison. All of his victims deserve that.”
Guzman faces multiple federal drug trafficking indictments in the U.S. and is on the DEA’s most-wanted list. Hisdrug empire stretches throughout North America and reaches as far away as Europe and Australia. His cartel has been heavily involved in the bloody drug war that has torn through parts of Mexico for the last several years.
A legendary outlaw, Guzman had been pursued for several weeks. His arrest comes on the heels of the takedown of several top Sinaloa operatives in the last few months and at least 10 mid-level cartel members in the last week.
The son of Sinaloa’s co-leader and Guzman’s partner, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, was arrested in November after entering Arizona, where he had an appointment with U.S. immigration authorities to arrange legal status for his wife.
The following month, Zambada’s main lieutenant was killed as Mexican helicopter gunships sprayed bullets at his mansion in the Gulf of California resort of Puerto Penasco in a four-hour gunbattle. Days later, police in the Netherlands arrested Zambada’s flamboyant top enforcer as he arrived in Amsterdam.
For that reason, rumors circulated that that the government was mounting a major operation to get Zambada.
Experts predict that as long as Zambada is at large, the cartel will continue business as usual.
“The take-down of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán Loera is a thorn in the side of the Sinaloa Cartel, but not a dagger in its heart,” said College of William and Mary government professor George Grayson, who studies Mexico’s cartels. “Zambada … will step into El Chapo’s boots. He is also allied with Juan Jose “El Azul” Esparragoza Moreno, one of most astute lords in Mexico’s underworld and, by far, its best negotiator.”
Guzman’s capture ended a long and storied manhunt. He was rumored to live everywhere from Argentina to Guatemala since he slipped out in 2001 from prison in a laundry truck — a feat that fed his larger-than-life persona. Because insiders aided his escape, rumors circulated for years that he was helped and protected by former Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s government, which vanquished some of his top rivals.
In more than a decade on the run, Guzman transformed himself from a middling Mexican capo into arguably the most powerful drug trafficker in the world. His fortune has grown to more than $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which listed him among the “World’s Most Powerful People” and ranked him above the presidents of France and Venezuela.
His Sinaloa Cartel grew bloodier and more powerful, taking over much of the lucrative trafficking routes along the U.S. border, including such prized cities as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez. Guzman’s play for power against local cartels caused a bloodbath in Tijuana and made Juarez one of the deadliest cities in the world. In little more than a year, Mexico’s biggest marijuana bust, 134 tons, and its biggest cultivation were tied to Sinaloa, as were a giant underground methamphetamine lab in western Mexico and hundreds of tons of precursor chemicals seized in Mexico and Guatemala.