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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Mexican officials chipped away at ‘El Chapo’s’ network to recapture him

LOS MOCHIS, Mexico – In the rain and darkness Friday morning, Mexican marines crept up in trucks with their lights out and jumped between rooftops on Boulevard Jiquilpan, surrounding a little white house in this coastal city where their country’s most-wanted fugitive, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, was hiding.

When the shooting started, neighbors woke terrified. Marines went door to door rousting people from their beds, desperately trying to keep the billionaire drug lord – who had escaped twice from federal prison – from slipping away again.

Then he did just that. Famous for his Houdini-like disappearing acts, Guzmán vanished down an escape hatch and into the sewer. It wasn’t until he popped up four blocks away, stole a car, and sped out of town that Mexican authorities finally captured him on the highway and ended six months of national humiliation for letting the world’s top drug lord go free.

“I never thought they’d catch him again,” said José Carlos Castro, a 29-year-old auto shop employee who worked across from the raided house. “Much less right here.”

But it was Guzmán’s contact with movie producers and actresses about a biopic based on his life that ultimately helped authorities recapture the chief of the Sinaloa cartel along a highway outside a coastal town, according to Mexican attorney general Arely Gómez González.

Actor Sean Penn secretly met with Guzmán in his Mexican hideout in October, according to an account Penn wrote for Rolling Stone magazine that was published online Saturday night.

According to the article, Penn asked Guzmán how being free had affected him.

“Well, as for being free – happy, because freedom is really nice, and pressure, well, for me it’s normal, because I’ve had to be careful for a few years now in certain cities, and, no, I don’t feel anything that hurts my health or my mind. I feel good,” Guzmán told Penn.

The capture was celebrated by law enforcement officials in Washington because Guzmán runs a drug-trafficking network with vast international reach that has been dumping tons of cocaine and heroin into U.S. cities for years. But more than that, it represented a massive vindication, at least symbolically, for a Mexican government that has often seemed incapable of alleviating the brutal drug war violence that has left some 100,000 dead in the past decade.

After two prison escapes, many expect the Mexican government to extradite Guzmán to the United States. After his last capture, it refused to do so, preferring to hold and interrogate Guzmán in Mexico. The Mexican attorney general’s office said in a statement Saturday that extradition procedures would begin. But that could take weeks or months, as the accusations against Guzmán must be reviewed and a judge needs to recommend a course of action.

“There are a series of things that could take months,” one official said.

From the moment Guzmán popped out of his prison escape tunnel six months ago and was whisked to a pair of waiting Cessnas, Mexican authorities undertook a massive manhunt to recapture him, setting up highway checkpoints across several states. Over the next weeks and months, as military operations focused on his home state of Sinaloa, authorities chipped away at the vast network of accomplices who helped Guzmán escape from a 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 Sinaloa.

In a news conference Friday night, Gómez said that after weeks of investigation and military and police operations in the region, authorities had acquired 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. As Guzmán fled – falling and injuring 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 risk killing them, Gómez said.

By late December, authorities suspected that Guzmán had gone to the coast. They began to focus on Los Mochis, a city nestled amid corn and cane fields in northern Sinaloa, and a white two-story house – obscured by trees and across from a dental office and an auto-glass repair shop – that neighbors said was for rent. The neighborhood was upper middle class: The mayor and the governor’s mother lived nearby. The house also sat directly above the sewer tunnels.

When the gunfight erupted, some neighbors dived to the floor, desperate to avoid stray bullets. The rattle of gunfire was punctuated by explosions of what might have been the rocket-propelled grenades later found in the house. Buses blocked off the streets, and helicopters swooped low over the rooftops. After more than an hour of fighting, five of Guzmán’s men lay dead and others had been arrested. One marine was injured.

“I thought we were in Syria,” said one neighbor who lived a block away and refused, like many others interviewed, to give her name out of fear for her safety. “This has been the biggest shock of my life. The world’s most-wanted man is my neighbor.”

Guzmán and one of his top lieutenants, Jorge Ivan Gastelum, fled through a hatch into the sewer tunnels, a tactic Guzmán had used in previous escapes. Some of those hatches were hidden under a bathtub. A Mexican marine at the scene Saturday wouldn’t give details but said the passageway in the Los Mochis house was “the same system as the others.”

About 9 a.m., Guzmán, in a dirty tank top, and a shirtless Gastelum emerged from the sewer four blocks east between an Office Depot and a Pollo Feliz restaurant. According to people who work in the area, the two fugitives forced open a square metal manhole but had trouble lifting the hinged cover, so they wedged in one of their shoes to prop it open. At that point, they brandished their guns and ordered a vendor selling the local newspaper, El Debate, to remove the cover so they could reach the street, according to two people who heard the account from the vendor.

“He was terrified and shaking,” one woman said of the vendor.

Inside the sewer from which they emerged was a weapon that appeared to be an assault rifle, still propped against the wall under the manhole cover Saturday.

A white sedan was stopped at the traffic light when they reached the street. Guzmán and Gastelum ordered a man and a woman out of the car and sped off through drizzling rain. Authorities apprehended the vehicle outside of town on Highway 15 and took the men to the Doux Hotel, a mid-range establishment nearby that rents rooms by the night and the hour. The federal police put Guzmán in Room 51, away from the road, and searched every room in the hotel, according to hotel staff.

“I think it’s kind of stupid,” said a guest from Tijuana who refused to give his name for security reasons. “If you have that kind of money, why would you be here in Los Mochis? You’d be in Dubai or Switzerland.”

On Saturday, bullet holes could be seen in the neighbors’ metal gates near the raid, and a woman was hosing off blood in her carport. An architect who lives nearby said marines burst into many houses around their target to try to encircle Guzmán. He complained that they took a TV monitor attached to his security system. “They just stole it,” he said.

Guzmán was later flown to Mexico City and returned to Altiplano prison, the facility he escaped from in July. For a year and a half before that, he lived in a tiny concrete cell with a hole in the floor for a toilet. To free him, his accomplices cut through the floor of his shower stall and ferried him into a mile-long tunnel equipped with a motorcycle.

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