In a stunning blow to one of Mexico’s most powerful crime cartels, authorities on Saturday arrested Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, one of the biggest drug fugitives wanted in both his own country and the United States.
The leader of the Sinaloa cartel was arrested without incident at a hotel in Mazatlán, a resort city on the Pacific coast. The bust culminated a joint operation between Mexican and US law enforcement authorities.
Considered the richest trafficker in the world, El Chapo’s power is legendary and his influence is often compared with that of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug kingpin who was killed in the 1990s. The Sinaloa cartel is the biggest single exporter of narcotics to the United States, the largest market for illegal drugs.
According to US officials, Guzmán had more cocaine connections throughout the world than any other drug trafficker. The routes he controls extend from poppy fields in Afghanistan to the streets of Chicago. His harvest fields in Mexico are said to cover some 60,000 square kilometers of land, roughly the size of Costa Rica, according to The Economist.
Each year, he made the annual Forbes list of the world's wealthiest billionaires. The price for his capture was set at $7 million, by both Mexican and the US authorities.
Authorities brought Guzmán before the press on Saturday, shortly after 2pm at Mexico City airport, before placing him on board a federal police helicopter en route to a high-security prison. This took place as Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam gave a news conference.
His arrest is seen a major victory for President Enrique Peña Nieto’s nearly 15-month-old government. His predecessors, Felipe Calderón and Vicente Fox, came close on several occasions to detaining Guzmán but were never able to apprehend him. El Chapo was arrested by Mexico’s marines shortly before 7am on Saturday along with a reputed associate, the federal prosecutor said.
It had been years since a recent photograph of El Chapo – whose nickname comes from chaparro or the short one – had been circulated in public. Wearing a light blue shirt and denim pants as he was led away, Guzmán could pass for an ordinary office worker. His bushy moustache and stature – he stands at around five-feet, three inches – are his most distinguishable characteristics. As he was being escorted to the helicopter by three marines, he appeared resigned to his fate.
People of Sinaloa would gossip that El Chapo would sometimes offer to pay for everyone’s bill at an eatery.
Born in 1957 in Sinaloa, Guzmán emerged as one of the bloodiest narco chiefs in Mexico after his split from the Beltrán Leyva cartel. His battle with the Zetas for control of the drug routes in border cities such as Ciudad Juárez supplied Mexicans with some of the horrifying scenes that were bannered in the sensational press – bodies of children lying on a city street, victims of a car bomb, and men and women strung from bridges.
El Chapo was arrested in 1993 in Guatemala but in January 2001 he escaped from a high-security prison in Jalisco state by hiding in a laundry cart. After that getaway, Guzmán’s legend soared. Throughout the years the people of Sinaloa would gossip that he had been seen at a certain restaurant, and would sometimes would offer to pay for everyone’s bill at the eatery.
“He is a business genius,” said Guillermo Valdés, former director of Mexico’s intelligence agency, Cisen, in an interview with EL PAÍS.
At the time of his arrest in 1993, he told a judge that he was a farmer and rancher, who made some $6,000 a month.
According to authorities, the Beltrán Leyva cartel ordered the murder of El Chapo’s 22-year-old son, Edgar, who was gunned down in 2009 as he left a movie theater in Culiacán. Arturo Beltrán Leyva, one of the leaders of the rival cartel, was himself gunned down in 2009 in an operation by the marines.
Last month, Peña Nieto’s security cabinet revealed in a report that law enforcement authorities were closing in on Guzmán, as they kept close watch on his friends, family and former partners. In the report, authorities said that El Chapo was suffering from diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Law enforcement authorities began to scramble at the beginning of the week with security forces moving into Sinaloa and Baja California states, both in the north of Mexico. Authorities arrested 10 drug traffickers, including Joel Enrique “El 19” Sandoval, a reputed cartel hit man chief, and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambrada, the number two in the Sinaloa cartel.
Now with El Chapo behind bars, authorities believe that an internal power struggle will ensue among cartel members.