MEXICO CITY — The world’s most-wanted drug kingpin, known as El Chapo, has been captured, a senior US law enforcement official said Saturday, ending a 13-year manhunt for the chief supplier of illegal drugs to the United States and much of the rest of the world.
Joaquín Guzmán Loera, whose nickname means Shorty, had eluded authorities time and again since he escaped from a prison in a laundry cart just before an extradition order to the United States. He faces a slew of drug trafficking and other charges stemming from a multibillion-dollar drug empire.
Mexican marines captured him in the Pacific beach resort area of Mazatlan. There were no reports of shots fired. In the past year, several of his top associates had been detained and crime analysts who follow the drug world had speculated his days were increasingly numbered.
Guzmán, 56, took on near-mythic status, landing on the Forbes list of the world’s richest people. The magazine said his fortune had grown to more than $1 billion.
Guzmán would pick up the tab for entire restaurants, or so the stories go, so diners would remain silent about his outings. According to a leaked diplomatic cable, he surrounded himself with an entourage of 300 armed men for protection. Narcocorridos, folk ballads in tribute to drug lords, were sung in his honor.
It seemed as if he was always tipped off or managed to slip away just as Mexican forces, often relying on US intelligence, closed in several times in the past few years.
In 2012, it appeared he was hiding in a mansion in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur around the time then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with foreign ministers in the same town. A raid the next day failed to capture him.
While Guzmán is the most prominent drug lord to fall, the practical effect of his end remained unclear. He was considered the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, the largest and most powerful cartel with tentacles on every continent.
Security analysts, however, have long suspected that, as Mexican and US authorities ratcheted up their pursuit, much of the day-to-day management fell to subordinates who remain at large.
Another powerful group, the Zetas, has emerged to battle Guzmán’s organization, raising questions about whether the focus on dismantling that group gave Guzmán something of a free pass.
Still, Guzmán’s fall carried a potent symbolic boost for Mexican security forces, which have killed or captured 25 of the 37 most-wanted organized crime leaders announced in 2010.
Guzmán boasted a rags-to-riches story that only fed the legend. He was born in poverty in the foothills of the Sierra Madre in northwestern Sinaloa state and dropped out of school by third grade. His first foray into drug smuggling came in the late 1980s, when, according to the US State Department, he began working for Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, once Mexico’s biggest cocaine dealer, as an air logistics expert.
Guzmán astutely exploited the cocaine boom in the United States at the time, making valuable contacts along the transport chain from Barranquilla, in Colombia, to Arizona.
By the time the Mexican authorities captured Felix Gallardo in 1989, Guzmán inherited one of his smuggling routes and began forming his own, mushrooming cartel.
He was charged in the United States with money laundering and racketeering in March 1993 and three months later he was arrested and convicted on drug and homicide charges and sentenced to 20 years in prison in Mexico.
He said he was a farmer and merchant earning approximately $6,000 monthly.
The drug and racketeering indictments piled up. One in 1994 said Guzmán continued operating his organization through his brother, Arturo Guzmán Loera, while in prison in Mexico, arranging cocaine shipments from South America to the United States.
In January 2001, Guzmán’s criminal career took a stunning turn. He escaped from the maximum-security prison in Guadalajara — the heart of Felix Gallardo’s cartel operations. According to popular folklore, he was wheeled out in a laundry cart, with assistance from the prison authorities.
His life on the run gave rise to all manner of rumors about his whereabouts. In a New York Times interview in fall 2011, Felipe Calderón, the president at the time, wondered aloud if Guzmán was actually in the United States when Guzmán’s latest bride traveled to Los Angeles to give birth to twins.
In the past year, US and Mexican authorities stepped up sanctions to pressure the Guzmán family. Yet, the Sinaloa Cartel has grown steadily since his escape, expanding into marijuana and heroin.
In the end, Guzmán’s fall may hardly mean the end of his empire. There simply may be “a redistribution of power,” said Malcolm Beith, a journalist who wrote “The Last Narco,” describing the hunt for Guzmán.
A US federal indictment unsealed in San Diego in 1995 charges Guzman and 22 members of his organization with money laundering and conspiracy to import eight tons of cocaine. A provisional arrest warrant was issued as a result of the indictment, according to the State Department.
An estimated 70,000 people have been killed in drug violence since Calderón deployed thousands of soldiers to drug hotspots upon taking office on Dec. 1, 2006.