CULIACAN, Mexico — For 13 years Joaquin ‘‘El Chapo’’ Guzman watched from western Mexico’s rugged mountains as authorities captured or killed the leaders of every group challenging his Sinaloa cartel’s spot at the top of global drug trafficking.
Unscathed and his legend growing, 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 caught at a border crossing in Nogales, Ariz., in November as part of a sprawling, complex investigation with 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 later, 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 continued 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. By Saturday, they had nabbed Guzman, 56, in the resort city of Mazatlan, where he fled after reportedly escaping a law enforcement net in Culiacan.
‘‘My sense in talking with Homeland Security officials and others last night is that we were able to penetrate his circle, get people within the organization to cooperate,’’ US Representative Michael McCaul, a Republican of Texas and chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. ‘‘It’s not just the most significant capture and the arrest of one man, but it bodes well for our efforts to dismantle and unravel the Sinaloa cartel.’’
McCaul called Sunday for Guzman to be extradited to United States to ensure he remains behind bars, noting that the drug lord escaped from prison in 2001.
But the Mexican operation that netted Guzman was praised across the board in the United States as a sign of President Enrique Pena Nieto’s commitment to battling organized crime.
On Feb. 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 this 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 Saturday at least some were actually security for Guzman, and authorities used them to obtain information that helped lead to the head of the cartel. The official was not authorized to talk to journalists and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Agents learned that Guzman had started coming down from his isolated mountain hideouts to enjoy the comforts of Culiacan and Mazatlan, said Michael Vigil, a former senior DEA official who was briefed on the operation.
‘‘That was a fatal error,’’ Vigil said.
Working on information gleaned from Guzman’s bodyguards, Mexican marines swarmed the house of Guzman’s former wife but struggled to batter down the steel-reinforced door, according to Mexican authorities and former US law enforcement officials briefed on the operation.
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 US Drug Enforcement Administration agents set up a base of operations with Mexican marines in the city, according to the current US law-enforcement official.
Early Saturday morning, Guzman’s reign was halted without a shot fired. Marines closed the beachside road in front of the Miramar condominiums, a 10-story, pearl-colored 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 nation’s most-wanted man at 6:40, just minutes after sunrise.
Guzman was caught with an unidentified woman, said one official not authorized to be quoted by name, who added that the DEA and US Marshals Service were ‘‘heavily involved’’ in the capture. Mexican officials said, however, that Guzman was detained along with a man they identified as Carlos Manuel Hoo Ramirez.