MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico’s most wanted man, drug cartel kingpin Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, was captured on Saturday with help from U.S. agencies in a major victory for the government in a long, brutal drugs war.
Guzman, known as “El Chapo” (Shorty) in Spanish, has long run Mexico’s infamous Sinaloa Cartel. Over the past decade, he has emerged as one of the world’s most powerful organized crime bosses.
He was caught in his native northwestern state of Sinaloa in an early morning operation without a shot being fired, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said, adding that Guzman’s identity had been 100 percent confirmed.
It is a political triumph for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office in late 2012. Pena Nieto confirmed the capture via Twitter earlier on Saturday and congratulated his security forces. The U.S. government also applauded the arrest.
Guzman’s cartel has smuggled billions of dollars worth of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines into the United States, and fought vicious turf wars with other Mexican gangs.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the fighting, especially in western and northern regions that have long been key smuggling routes.
Many of the victims have been tortured and beheaded and their bodies dumped in a public place or in mass graves. The violence has ravaged border cities and even beach resorts like Acapulco.
Authorities said Guzman, 56, was captured in a pre-dawn raid on a seaside condominium in the northwestern resort of Mazatlan, and then flown to Mexico City.
Wearing a cream shirt and dark jeans and with a black moustache, he was frog-marched in front of reporters on live TV, bound for prison.
It was the first public glimpse of the elusive kingpin since he escaped from prison in 2001.
The 5-foot 6-inch (1.7-metre) Guzman looked briefly toward TV cameras waiting on the tarmac outside the Marines’ hangar at Mexico City’s airport, before his head was shoved back down by a soldier wearing a face mask.
Murillo Karam said security forces had nearly caught Guzman days earlier, but he gave them the slip.
“The doors of the house ... were reinforced with steel and so in the minutes it took us to open them, it allowed for an escape through tunnels,” Murillo Karam said.
They then tracked him down again and waited for the right moment to strike, he said, adding that “some U.S. agencies” had helped in capturing Guzman.
He gave no more details but a U.S. Homeland Security source said Mexican forces worked jointly with agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Marshals Service.
Murillo Karam did not say whether Guzman would face trial in Mexico or be extradited to the United States.
Alberto Islas, a security expert with Risk Evaluation, said Pena Nieto ordered his cabinet to capture Guzman immediately after taking office in December 2012, and handed the job to the Marines, widely seen as less corrupt than other security forces.
Citing people involved in the operation, he said 25 Marines entered the condominium where Guzman was staying and evaded two security teams there to protect the drug lord. Guzman and three other people, including a woman, were asleep at the time.
The whole operation took around 7-1/2 minutes, Islas said. Neighbors only realized it had taken place when they heard the helicopter whisking Guzman away, he added.
Guzman’s exploits have made him a legend in many impoverished communities of northern Mexico, where he has been immortalized in dozens of ballads and low budget movies.
The United States had placed a $5 million bounty on Guzman’s head and authorities in Chicago last year dubbed him the city’s first Public Enemy No. 1 since gangster Al Capone.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder described the arrest as “a landmark achievement, and a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States.”
“The criminal activity Guzman allegedly directed contributed to the death and destruction of millions of lives across the globe through drug addiction, violence, and corruption,” Holder said in a statement.
The Homeland Security source said U.S. agents assisted on the ground near the arrest site, and that the operation was the result of connecting many dots, not a single tip.
“I don’t think either the Mexicans or our guys could have done this by themselves,” he said. “We’ve been searching for years and wouldn’t have been in this position without leveraging and combining assets from Mexico, the DEA, ICE and the Marshals.”
Nearly 80,000 people have died in drug-related killings in Mexico since former President Felipe Calderon sent in the army in early 2007 to quell the powerful drug bosses, a policy that Pena Nieto has criticized but found tough to break with.
There has been some concern in the United States that Pena Nieto’s government might not be as aggressive in pursuing cartel leaders, but Guzman’s capture will ease those fears.
“Chapo is the jewel in the crown, the most-wanted drug boss in recent years and, in that sense, this is a great success,” said Jorge Chabat, an expert on drug trafficking at the CIDE research center.
From humble beginnings in a ramshackle village, Guzman rose up in the 1980s under the tutelage of Sinaloan kingpin Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, alias “The Boss of Bosses,” who pioneered cocaine smuggling routes into the United States.
He came to prominence in 1993, when assassins who shot dead Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas claimed they had been gunning for Guzman but got the wrong target.
Guzman is the latest in a series of high profile capos to be caught or killed.
Last July, Pena Nieto’s government caught the leader of the Zetas drug cartel, Miguel Angel Trevino, aka Z-40.
The Zetas have been blamed for many of the worst atrocities carried out by Mexican drug gangs, acts that have sullied the country’s name and put fear into tourists and investors alike.
Founded by army deserters in the late 1990s, the Zetas initially acted as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. But cracks began to appear and the rupture was sealed in early 2010, setting off the most violent phase in Mexico’s drug war.
Calderon, a conservative, had staked his reputation on bringing Mexico’s powerful drug gangs to heel. While the armed forces he sent in captured or killed many of the top capos, cartels splintered amid leadership challenges and turf wars exploded across Mexico.
He congratulated Pena Nieto and his government in a message on Twitter on Saturday, describing the arrest as a “great blow.”
Analysts were divided on whether Guzman’s lieutenant Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada would take the helm of the Sinaloa Cartel.
Alejandro Hope, security director at the Mexican Competitiveness Institute think tank, said Guzman’s downfall represented the end of a 30-year era of high-profile drug lords running riot across Mexico.
“There will be very few figures of this caliber,” he said.
Pena Nieto has sought to play down the drug fight, seeking to focus public attention on a series of economic reforms spanning energy to telecoms, which he has pushed through Congress aiming to boost long-lagging economic growth.
He has also tried an unorthodox strategy, co-opting vigilantes in western Mexico in the fight against the feared Knights Templar Cartel. Security experts say this is potentially playing with fire.
Guzman has been caught before, and famously gave his jailers the slip. In 2001, he escaped a Mexican prison, reportedly in a laundry cart, to become the country’s most high-profile trafficker. He is believed to command groups of hitmen from the U.S. border into Central America.
He was indicted in the United States on dozens of charges of racketeering and conspiracy to import cocaine, heroin, marijuana and crystal meth.
Forbes magazine listed Guzman for a time in its annual list of billionaires around the world. But it dropped him last year, because it was impossible to verify his wealth.
Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball and John Shiffman in Washington and Adriana Barrera, Julia Symmes Cobb and Simon Gardner in Mexico City; Editing by Kieran Murray, Frances Kerry, Gunna Dickson and David Gregorio