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MEXICO

Get Shorty: how notorious drug lord Joaquin Guzman was captured

Meticulously executed plan targeted cartel chief's associates before leading to prized catch

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 4:37am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 9:05am
 

Watch: Mexico drug kingpin 'El Chapo' Guzman walked before media

For 13 years Joaquin Guzman watched from the rugged mountains of western Mexico as authorities captured or killed the leaders of every group that challenged his Sinaloa cartel's spot at the top of global drug trafficking.

Unscathed and his legend growing, "El Chapo" - or Shorty - the stocky son of a peasant farmer grabbed a slot on the Forbes' billionaires' list and a folkloric status as the capo who grew too powerful to catch.

Then, late last year, authorities started closing on the inner circle of the world's most-wanted drug lord.

The son of one of his two top henchmen, Ismael "Mayo" Zambada, was arrested at a border crossing in Nogales, Arizona, 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 passed before police at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam arrested one of the cartel's top assassins, a man who handled transport and logistics for Guzman.

This month the noose started tightening.

Federal forces began sweeping through Culiacan, capital of the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa - closing streets, raiding houses, seizing automatic weapons, drugs and money - and arresting a series of men Mexican officials carefully described to reporters as top officials for Zambada.

But the target was bigger.

On February 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.

In the middle of last week, 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.

A US law enforcement official said that at least some were actually security for Guzman, and authorities used them to obtain information that helped lead to the head of the cartel.

Agents learned that Guzman, 56, had started coming down from his isolated mountain hideouts to enjoy the comforts of Culiacan and Mazatlan, said Michael Vigil, a former senior Drug Enforcement Administration official who was briefed on the operation.

"That was a fatal error," Vigil said.

Working on the information gleaned from Guzman's bodyguards, Mexican marines swarmed the house of Guzman's ex-wife but struggled to batter down the steel-reinforced door.

As the marines forced their way in, Guzman fled through a secret door beneath a bathtub down a corrugated steel ladder into a network of tunnels and sewer canals that connect to six other houses in Culiacan, the officials said.

Guzman fled south to Mazatlan. On his heels, a team of DEA agents set up a base of operations with Mexican marines in the city.

Early on Saturday, Guzman's reign came to an end without a shot fired. Marines closed the beachside road in front of the Miramar condominiums, a 10-storey, pearl-coloured 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 the country's most-wanted man at 6.40am, a few minutes after the sun rose.

Guzman was caught with an unidentified woman.

A US law-enforcement official with direct knowledge of the killing of Zambada's main lieutenant in November described it as part of a concerted binational effort to decapitate the Sinaloa cartel. The organisation became the focus of US and Mexican attention after a string of arrests and slaying of the heads of other cartels, most notably the seizure of brutal Zetas cartel head Miguel Angel Trevino Morales in July.

By early afternoon, Guzman was marched across the tarmac of the Mexican marines' hanger at the Mexico City airport.

The man who eluded Mexican authorities for more than a decade after fleeing from prison in a laundry basket looked pudgy, bowed and middle-aged in a white button-down shirt and beltless black jeans.

Guzman said nothing, and looked subdued as he reappeared before the world for a few seconds before disappearing into the cargo bay of a helicopter waiting to take him to prison, perhaps extradition to the US.

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