How Guzman ‘El Chapo’ was finally captured, again

MEXICO CITY: Stripped to his undershirt and covered in filth, the world's most notorious drug lord dragged himself out of the sewers and into the middle of traffic.

Disoriented from his long trudge underground, with gun-toting marines on his heels, he found himself standing across the street from a Wal-Mart. Joaquin Guzman Loera, the kingpin known across the globe as El Chapo, would have to improvise. His cavalry was not coming.

He and his top lieutenant commandeered a white Volkswagen from a passing motorist, but only a few blocks later, the car became engulfed in smoke, witnesses said. Desperate for another vehicle, the two men spotted a red Ford Focus at a traffic light, driven by a woman with her daughter and 5-year-old grandson.

"Get out of the car now," said the lieutenant, his weapon trained on the woman as he lifted the door handle, witnesses said. She complied, prying the child from the back seat and leaving her belongings in the car. Politely, the lieutenant handed her her purse before speeding off.

The Mexican marines had been on Guzman's trail for more than six months, ever since he humiliated the nation by escaping its most secure prison through a tunnel that led into the shower floor of his cell.

The chase had led them into the remote wilds of the Golden Triangle, on the border of Durango and Sinaloa states, an area where Guzman is revered. He evaded multiple raids by the Mexican authorities, including a close brush after he sat for an interview with the US actor Sean Penn.

But it had come at a cost. The authorities had swept through 18 of his homes and properties in his native lands. Days on end in the inhospitable mountains, where even a billionaire like Guzman was forced to rough it, left him yearning for a bit of comfort.

In early January, he arrived in the coastal city of Los Mochis, in Sinaloa, at a home where the authorities had trailed one of the chief tunnel diggers from his escape. Construction crews had been hard at work on the house for weeks. Telephone intercepts indicated that someone big was about to arrive.

The final bit of evidence was a food order, Mexican officials said.

Just two blocks away, a big order of tacos was picked up after midnight January 8 by a man driving a white van, like the one believed to be driven by Guzman's associates, witnesses said.
Picture released by Mexican website 'Plaza de Armas' shows 'El Chapo' Guzman soon after his recapture in a hotel in Mexico's Sinaloa state. (Via AFP/Getty Images)

Hours later, at 4.30am, the marines stormed the compound, meeting a knot of doors and fierce resistance from gunmen. Like many of Guzman's homes, this one was equipped with elaborate escape hatches: a decoy beneath the refrigerator, and another behind a closet mirror, which he used to flee as the battle raged.

Hours later, on a highway heading out of town, the authorities finally got Guzman, arguably the most powerful drug dealer in the history of the trade, for the third time since 1993.

A Potent Symbol

Guzman's capture — described using information from interviews with witnesses and government officials, police reports, military video and Mexican news reports confirmed by officials — brings to a close, for now, one of the most exhaustive manhunts the Mexican government has conducted, an endeavor that drew in more than 2,500 people across the nation.

That all that effort was committed to the pursuit of a single man — whose arrest, despite his wealth and influence, will do little to alter the dynamics of the drug trade or the war against it — reflects just how potent a symbol Guzman had become in Mexico and beyond.

As the head of the Sinaloa cartel, Guzman is the embodiment of an identity the country has fought to shed for decades. To some, the uneducated farm boy turned cartel magnate is a Robin Hood figure for modern times, revered for his fight against the government and generosity to the poor. For others, he is a heartless criminal who floods America's streets with narcotics and leaves Mexico's streets strewn with bodies.

Either way, Guzman represents a deep crisis for Mexico's leaders as they struggle to define the country's image.

His daring escape from prison last July, in view of the video camera in his cell, cast a lurid spotlight on the incompetence and corruption that has long dogged the Mexican state, driving many to view the government on a par with criminals.
Guzman El Chapo being escorted by Mexican marines after his capture. (AP photo)

Now, the recapture of Guzman, who has escaped prison twice, is about Mexico repairing its security relationship with America; its image globally; and perhaps most important, its leaders' relationship with their own people.

El Chapo's image, by contrast, seemed only to grow after his escapes. Perhaps more than the infamy he gained as a cartel chief — responsible for shipping tons of drugs to more than 50 countries around the world, with a wider reach than even Pablo Escobar in his heyday — Guzman has earned a reputation as the world's pre-eminent escape artist.

After breaking out of prison in 2001 (by some accounts, he sneaked out in a laundry cart), Guzman dodged Mexican and US authorities for more than a decade. At a network of homes he owned, his team of engineers and diggers had expertly constructed tunnels enabling him to slip away, time and again, often just minutes before raids.

In February 2014, the authorities arrived at a house in Culiacan only to find a signature Chapo trick — a tunnel entrance beneath a bathtub — through which the kingpin had just fled.

He was, after all, a creator of the border tunnel, underground passages equipped with lighting, ventilation and mechanical carts to smuggle drugs into the United States without having to bother with the headache of evading customs agents. In total, Guzman's organization is estimated to have burrowed more than 90 such passages between Mexico and the United States.
This photo provided by the Mexican secretariat of the navy shows Mexican military personnel carry out an operation to recapture. (Via NYT)

But those tunnels could hardly compare to the one crafted for his escape last summer from the most secure wing of the country's most secure prison. During the 17 months Guzman was locked up, he met often with associates, not only to plan his legal defense, but also to plot his escape, Mexican officials said. His men purchased land within sight of the prison, constructing an outer wall and an unfinished building on the site. From there, a mile away, the digging began.

They eventually reached the exact spot beneath Guzman's cell, tunneling up beneath the shower floor, into a narrow space behind a waist-high wall that gave prisoners some modicum of privacy from the 24-hour surveillance camera. At 8.52pm on July 11, 2015, Guzman walked into his shower, bent over and disappeared into legend for the second time.

Two Cessna jets later whisked him back to the mountains of his childhood, where the pursuit would begin, again.

Lure of Silver Screen

Even before Guzman vanished from custody, though, he was making plans for a vanity project that ultimately helped the authorities pinpoint his whereabouts. By most accounts, Guzman was not short on ego. His lawyers had filed papers to copyright his name for a big venture he was working on: a movie about his life. He reached out to several famous Mexican actresses, including Yolanda Andrade, hoping to lure them into his web of influence.

To that end, Kate del Castillo, another Mexican actress known for her portrayal of a drug boss in the series "La Reina Del Sur," or "The Queen of the South," had caught his attention. She had been sympathetic

To him on social media and Guzman instructed a close associate to contact her.
Actor Sean Penn during his interview with Guzman. (Rolling Stone photo via Reuters)
Before Guzman's escape, del Castillo met with a lawyer in Mexico City to discuss communications with Guzman about a potential film. The meetings and communication continued while he was ensconced in the ragged mountains of the Sierra Madre.

Mexican authorities were monitoring the phones of Guzman and his accomplices, reading the odd and unexpectedly tender exchanges between him and the actress. Guzman promised to protect del Castillo as he would his own eyes, an affectionate phrase Mexican parents often say of their children.

Even when del Castillo suggested bringing along Penn for an interview, the drug lord did not flinch. That was, perhaps in part, because he seemed to have no idea who Penn is.

Piggybacking on the communications, the authorities tracked down Guzman and planned an operation to grab him in early October. But the mission was delayed; they could not risk taking action while Penn and del Castillo were in the vicinity.

On October 2, the parties met for the first time, in the remote reaches of the Golden Triangle, near the city of Cosala in Sinaloa. Guzman left afterward for Durango, where he had a ranch.

The circle had already been drawing tighter around Guzman, with the authorities pressing into the villages and homes of his associates and upending life for many in the areas where he was believed to be hiding. But his meeting with the actors gave them the break they needed: actionable intelligence of his specific location.

Six days later, a detachment of marines swept in to capture Guzman on his ranch, acting with information from US authorities. During the raid, Guzman, who always took his two cooks with him wherever he went, darted into a gully as he fled, injuring his face and leg.

A Black Hawk helicopter circling the scene spotted him, accompanied by his two female cooks and holding one of their children in his arms. A Mexican marine special forces sniper trained his rifle on the fugitive drug lord, but was told to stand down. Guzman, upon seeing the Black Hawk, leaned back with the child in his arms, Mexican officials said, obscuring himself as a target. The likelihood of hitting one of the women or the child while firing on Guzman was too high, they said.

In the following weeks, operations continued in and around areas under Guzman's control. The brutal weather of an approaching winter also concerned the cartel leader — Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa, where life could be more comfortable, was under constant surveillance. He needed to go somewhere outside his traditional zone of influence.

A Bloody Gunbattle

Los Mochis fit the bill. In 2013, power in the city had begun to shift. The splintering Beltran-Levya cartel, long the dominant force, was pushed out, leaving control to Guzman's Sinaloa cartel.

The government, aware that Guzman was planning a trip to an urban center, followed one of his associates to a house in Los Mochis, on a busy road with a movie theater, restaurants and shopping nearby.

Construction soon started. Neighbors periodically dropped by to take a look. A worker even promised one of them any extra concrete left after the renovation was completed.

"You're welcome to whatever we don't use," he told the neighbor. "We're just doing some repairs."

Toward the beginning of January, there was unusual activity at the house, with the residents inside breaking from their routines of the previous month, the authorities said. They intercepted phone conversations discussing the imminent arrival of someone known by the aliases of "Grandma" and "Aunt."

Then, at dawn on January 7, a car pulled up to the house. The authorities' certainty that Guzman had arrived increased. That night, after the taco order, they were nearly sure of it.

Before sunrise the next morning, 17 special forces marines from the Mexican navy stormed the house, supported by 50 soldiers charged with surveillance and keeping an eye on the drain system in and around the home.

Upon breaking through the metal door, they entered what appeared to be a tiny foyer, surrounded by a maze of doors. Shortly after, gunfire erupted.

"We've got one injured," a marine yelled, referring to one of his own soldiers, according to video of the raid taken by a soldier's helmet camera.

Gunfire continued in the narrow corridors. A commander ordered one of the marines to toss a grenade in front of one of the many doors blocking their advance. As the mission continued, two marines advanced down another hallway, pressing cautiously toward a staircase used by the surviving gunmen to escape to the roof, drawing fire away from the interior of the house.

By 6.30am, the house was secure. Five of Guzman's men were killed in the raid, while four others were arrested. Two women discovered inside, cooks for Guzman and his men, were also placed under arrest. Just the one marine was wounded.

A sweep of the house revealed two tunnels: one beneath the refrigerator, a false tunnel meant to confuse the advancing troops. The other was in a bedroom closet. A switch by the light bulb activated a trap door behind the mirror, leading to the route Guzman used to flee.

On the road, Guzman and his associate headed out of town along Highway 15. But the federal police were on alert, and they spotted the two men in the Ford Focus and arrested them.

Holding two of the deadliest men in all of Mexico made the police nervous. While they waited for the marines, they took the pair out of sight, afraid that cartel forces might try to stage a rescue. And with good reason: The police had been tipped that 40 assassins were on their way to free their leader, Mexican police officials said.

They selected the Hotel Doux, an hourly-rate place off the highway. They booked rooms and took pictures of Guzman in a filthy vest. The drug lord urged the men to free him. He promised them jobs as business leaders. When they refused, he tried threats.

"You are all going to die," he warned them, police officials said.

After the marines arrived, Guzman was taken to Mexico City in a helicopter, the capture finally over. Soon everyone was gone, leaving behind just one thing: an unpaid bill, according to an employee of the hotel.

After being paraded before a field of news cameras at the Mexico City airport that night, Guzman was ushered onto another helicopter, headed for the same prison he had escaped from six months earlier.

To keep him locked up this time, authorities said, they would rotate his cells, never allowing him to stay anywhere long enough to burrow his way out again. Vigilance would be enhanced, with more officers and round-the-clock surveillance from extra cameras.

But to many, the longer the drug lord remains in prison in Mexico, the higher the risk of flight. His imprisonment could drag on for a year, perhaps longer, given the numerous — and creative — injunctions filed by his team of lawyers to fight his extradition to the United States, where he faces federal indictments on charges that include narcotics trafficking and murder.

One of them, filed in August while Guzman was still at large, stated that it would be impossible for Guzman to receive a fair trial in the United States, given the hostile environment there toward Mexicans.

They cited, as evidence, the language of a top Republican presidential candidate: Donald Trump.



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