Cellphone, wiretaps led to legendary drug lord

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A Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because it’s a matter of sensitive diplomatic discussions, said no decisions regarding extradition have been made.

During his 13 years on the run, 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.

Under his leadership, the cartel grew deadlier and more powerful, taking over much of the lucrative trafficking routes along the U.S. border. Guzman watched from western Mexico’s rugged mountains as authorities captured or killed the leaders of every rival group challenging Sinaloa’s perch at the top of global drug trafficking.

The stocky son of a peasant farmer even achieved a slot on the Forbes’ billionaires’ list and earned a folkloric status as being too powerful to catch.

Then, late last year, authorities started closing on his inner circle.

The son of one of his two top partners, Ismael “Mayo” Zambada, was arrested at a border crossing in Nogales, Ariz., 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 later, police at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam arrested one of the cartel’s top assassins, a man who handled transport and logistics for Guzman.

The noose got tighter this month. Federal forces began sweeping through Culiacan, capital of the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa, where they closed streets, raided houses, seized automatic weapons, drugs and money, and arrested a series of men Mexican officials carefully described to reporters as top officials for Zambada.

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. Then 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. And agents learned that Guzman had started coming down from his isolated mountain hideouts to enjoy the comforts of Culiacan and Mazatlan.

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 Guzman a few minutes after sunrise.

Photos of the apartment published by a local newspaper showed cheap and unglamorous furnishings and little food or liquor, just a couple of dozen eggs on a shelf. A bag from a low-end supermarket lay on the floor.


Adriana Gomez Licon reported from Culiacan.

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