MAZATLAN, Mexico – Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, one of the world’s biggest drug traffickers and Mexico’s most-wanted fugitive, was captured in a joint U.S.-Mexican operation Saturday after more than a decade on the run, officials from both countries announced.
Guzman was arrested by agents who burst into the seaside condominium in the Sinaloa resort of Mazatlan where he had moved just two days earlier.
His capture was a huge symbolic blow to Mexican drug-trafficking, a world in which he had reached folk-hero status, and an important victory for the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto.
How Guzman’s removal will affect the drug trade is less clear. His Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s oldest, richest and most powerful marijuana and opium organization, has already expanded to more than 50 countries in the Americas, Europe and Africa, and is likely to continue with or without him.
“This is the biggest blow to drug trafficking by the Mexican government in many, many years,” said Samuel Gonzalez, former federal prosecutor who headed the government’s anti-narcotics squad in the 1990s. “It will, at least for a while, affect the flow of drugs to the U.S., though not necessarily the violence in Mexico.”
Others said it would make no difference at all.
The elusive drug lord was paraded briefly before reporters Saturday afternoon at the Mexican navy’s air hangar in Mexico City, where he was whisked from Mazatlan. He seemed slightly pudgy, in a white shirt and blue jeans, with abnormally black hair and a black mustache. He did not resemble the last known photos of him, which date to his arrest in Guatemala in 1993. He had been on the run since escaping from a Mexican maximum-security prison in 2001, reportedly by hiding in a laundry cart.
First word of the arrest came from U.S. officials in Washington. Mexican Atty. Gen. Jesus Murillo Karam said the capture was the result of months of work and that the Mexican government delayed announcing it until it was able to conduct a DNA test to be sure it had the right man.
“He has been 100 percent identified,” Murillo said. He said Guzman had been hiding in a network of houses connected by tunnels that allowed him to elude authorities.
Murillo made slight mention of U.S. assistance, reflecting the Pena Nieto government’s effort to distance itself from American help.
Residents in the 11-story seaside Miramar Condominium complex where Guzman was captured said he had moved in two days ago. They said the operation to capture him lasted about an hour and a half, starting around 4:30 a.m., when they noticed soldiers, police and, eventually, helicopters surrounding the complex. No shots were fired.
“There was no violence,” said one resident. “I had no idea who was living next door!”
There was a strong possibility that U.S. officials, who had put a $5 million bounty on Guzman, would quickly demand his extradition.
“He’s already escaped from one Mexican jail,” a U.S. official said. “Now we want him.”