CULIACAN, Mexico – From the moment six months ago when Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán popped out of his tunnel and was whisked to a pair of waiting Cessnas, Mexican authorities chipped away at the vast network of accomplices that helped the billionaire drug lord escape from maximum-security prison.
They arrested corrupt prison guards and officials, relatives who handed out bribes and oversaw tunnel construction, and his trusted pilots who flew him to safety in his home state of Sinaloa. Those accomplices, plus Guzmán’s apparent vanity – he had contacted producers and actresses about starring in a biopic based on his life – helped authorities ultimately recapture the chief of the Sinaloa drug cartel in a roadside motel.
Mexican Attorney General Arely Gómez González provided these details in her account of Guzmán’s capture at a news conference Friday night. After weeks of investigation and military and police operations in the region, Gómez said, authorities had an understanding of Guzmán’s properties and vehicles, including planes. In October, they tracked him to a ranch house in the town of Pueblo Nuevo in the western state of Durango. But as Guzmán fled – he would fall and injure his face and leg – he was accompanied by two women and a young girl, and soldiers circling above in a helicopter didn’t want to fire and kill the others, Gómez said.
By late December, authorities suspected that Guzmán had gone to the coast. They began to focus on a white concrete house in an upscale neighborhood of Los Mochis, a city in northern Sinaloa, where they suspected he was hiding out. By Friday morning, commandos from an elite Mexican Marine unit raided his house, setting off a gun battle that left five people dead. Guzmán and one of his top lieutenants, Ivan Gastelum, used one of their signature moves, fleeing through the sewer system, something Guzmán has used before to escape. They popped up through a manhole cover and stole a car but were ultimately pursued to a motel about five miles north, where Guzmán was captured unharmed.
Gómez said Guzmán would return to Altiplano, the same prison where he escaped six months ago. It is unclear whether he will be extradited to the United States.
“Mission accomplished: we have him,” President Enrique Peña Nieto wrote Friday on Twitter. “I want to inform the Mexicans that Joaquín Guzmán . . . has been captured.”
The news was an immediate boost to Peña Nieto, who has struggled with corruption scandals, drug violence and the humiliation of the escape last year by Mexico’s most famous prisoner. Peña Nieto, speaking later Friday in a televised address from the national palace, shared the credit with Mexico’s armed forces and intelligence services.
“Day and night, they worked to accomplish the mission I gave them, to recapture this criminal and bring him to justice,” Peña Nieto said. “Months of intense and careful intelligence work and criminal investigation allowed them to detain this criminal and dismantle his network of influence and protection.”
With Guzmán’s capture, the president said, 98 of Mexico’s 122 most wanted criminals had been killed or captured.
Extradition to U.S.?
It seemed likely that U.S. officials would press to have the former fugitive handed over. After Guzmán’s last arrest, in 2014, the U.S. government wanted him to face a multitude of pending charges in American courts. But Mexican authorities refused, considering it a point of pride for them to interrogate and prosecute their most important criminal in their own judicial system.
For a year and a half before his escape last year, Guzmán had been held in Altiplano prison outside Mexico City, supposedly the nation’s most secure detention center, where he lived in a tiny concrete cell with a hole in the floor for a toilet. His accomplices cut through the floor of his shower stall and ferried him into a mile-long tunnel equipped with a motorcycle. Several prison officials have since been accused of facilitating his escape.
[In Mexican town where ‘Chapo’ broke out of jail, admiration and awe]
In a statement Friday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said Guzmán’s capture represented “a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States, and a vindication of the rule of law in our countries.” She later called her Mexican counterpart, Gómez, to congratulate her.
It is unclear what role the United States played in the capture, but U.S. officials have lately been praising their security partnership with the Mexican government. Guzmán’s capture in Mazatlan in 2014 was due in part to extensive U.S. wiretapping and intelligence work to track the kingpin’s bodyguards.
Since the billionaire drug lord escaped last year, he had grown into a fugitive of epic proportions in the public imagination. He had broken out of a Mexican prison twice in the past two decades and seemed capable of outwitting authorities at every turn. During his latest period on the lam there were only sporadic reports of his whereabouts, including rumors that he had injured his leg fleeing one of many military operations to find him.
The arrest confirmed what many Chapo-watchers assumed, that he would not flee Mexico but would return to his home state, where he would have protection from residents, corrupt local police and his extensive cartel network. Around his home town, in the remote Sierra Madre mountains of eastern Sinaloa, checkered with plots of marijuana and opium poppy, residents have often praised Guzmán for his largess, which included giving them jobs and medical care and even air-dropping bags of money from Cessnas into peasant villages.
But like the first time he was recaptured, in a 2014 raid on his condominium in the beach resort city of Mazatlan, he was caught on the coast Friday – this time after a battle near a two-story white house on a residential street of Los Mochis, with a palm tree out front, televised images show.
Early-morning gun battle
A neighbor who lives about two blocks from the house, in an upper-middle-class subdivision, said by telephone that the commotion started about 3:40 a.m. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns, the neighbor said she heard gunfire and what she assumed to be bombs, and rushed to a windowless room inside her house for safety.
The gun battle lasted for about an hour, stopped for 15 minutes, then resumed, she said. Neighbors exchanged a running commentary on the WhatsApp messaging app, she said, that informed her there were frequent military and police patrols driving with their lights off, while helicopters circled overhead.
The neighbor added that authorities were searching storm drains and that she believed that some of the suspects escaped through them.
Mexican news outlets reported that Guzmán escaped the house and fled through a sewer but was ultimately captured at the Hotel Doux, about five miles north of the house. A person who answered the phone at the hotel declined to comment.
Five suspected gunmen were killed in the raid, including one of Guzmán’s top lieutenants, Gastelum, a.k.a. “El Cholo Ivan,” authorities said. They reported recovering four vehicles, two of them armored, plus at least nine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, officials said.
By Friday afternoon, Guzmán had been flown to the navy hangar in Mexico City, the same place where he was dragged before news cameras after his last arrest. Pictures circulating online showed him in a disheveled tank-top, a less flattering look than his last perp walk, in a crisp white dress shirt.
In the murky world of Mexican drug trafficking, it is unclear how much the Sinaloa cartel suffered during Guzmán’s last incarceration – or changed while he was out of prison.
“We don’t know whether the Sinaloa cartel will simply continue to operate as usual under El Mayo Zambada and other cartel leaders or if it will eventually devolve into smaller groups,” said Andrew Selee, a Mexico expert at the Wilson Center in Washington. “And if the Sinaloa cartel does fragment, will it produce more violence or lower the death toll?”
On Friday morning, the news coursed through a euphoric Mexican government.
“We are very happy,” Education Secretary Aurelio Nuño, who was Peña Nieto’s chief of staff when Guzmán fled prison, said in an interview.
Nuño noted that the first time Guzmán slipped out of federal prison, in 2001, he managed to stay on the lam for more than a decade, while this time he was free for less than a year.
“To achieve this for a second time ultimately speaks to the determination of this president, of this government, and a growing capacity of the Mexican state in terms of intelligence,” he said.
Elahe Izadi and Sari Horwitz in Washington, Nick Miroff in Havana and Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.