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El Chapo's Arrest Punctures Drug Lord's Near-Mythical Status

Mexican Marines escort Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to a helicopter in Mexico City on Saturday.
Marco Ugarte
Mexican Marines escort Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to a helicopter in Mexico City on Saturday.

One of the world's most powerful drug lords has been captured. Mexico's head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, was arrested in an operation that Mexican officials say involved the cooperation of U.S. authorities.

Guzman has been on the run for years and his capture puts an end to one of the longest and most profitable careers in the drug world. That capture began as the sun rose up over the hotel-lined beaches of Mazatlan early Saturday morning.

Marine special forces moved in on a condo complex in the heart of the pacific resort city and captured Mexico's most wanted criminal. Guzman was arrested along with a female collaborator. According to authorities, not one shot was fired.

Nine hours later, the arrest was officially announced. Speaking to reporters at Mexico City Airport's Marine base, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said doctors and federal investigators wanted to confirm Guzman's identity first, to be 100-percent certain they got the right guy.

Such caution is understandable given the mythical status Guzman has gained. He eluded capture for more than a decade. Thirteen years ago, imprisoned and nearing extradition to the U.S., Guzman escaped a maximum security prison by hiding in a laundry bin. Sightings of him are frequently reported, and his operation is said to be active in four continents, including Africa, Europe and Australia, with annual profits of more than $3 billion a year.

That's plenty of money to bribe officials and build a security detail that has long left him several steps ahead of arresting authorities. Guzman's trafficking network extends to hundreds of U.S. cities and in at least eight, he is named in federal indictments. Last year, Chicago's Crime Commission labeled him Public Enemy Number One.

It was last weekend when Mexican marines began to close in on the drug lord, Karam said. Unfortunately, Guzman was able to escape through a complex series of tunnels connecting as many as seven safe houses.

The doors in some of the houses were made out of steel, and Karam says in the time it took the Marines to knock them down, Guzman slipped away through the tunnels. Out of concern for local residents, Karam says, forces waited several days for the best opportunity before making the arrest.

President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has been in office for 14 months and has routinely downplayed drug violence in the country, is not one to parade captured drug traffickers in public. But given Guzman's status — and that the last picture seen of him was taken 13 years ago — Guzman got a grand perp walk.

Immediately following the press conference, two camouflaged army soldiers marched Guzman — one with his hand clutching the back of the drug trafficker's neck — past reporters and live TV cameras to an awaiting helicopter. His hair was dyed jet black and he wore a bushy mustache.

George Grayson, an expert on Mexico's cartels, said the arrest was a big success for the Pena Nieto administration, but will unlikely damage the powerful trafficking organization.

"The takedown of El Chapo is a thorn in the side, but not a dagger in the heart of the Sinaloa Cartel," he says.

Guzman's second-in-command, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada is expected to seamlessly take over without contention from lower lieutenants. In the central park of the Sinaloa capital of Culiacan, however, residents are bracing for violence.

Amado, a 53-year old shoe-shiner who would only give his first name, says he's been listening to clients all day worrying about what was going to happen if rival drug cartels come in and take over Sinaloa.

El Chapo is feared here, Amado says, but at least he kept Sinaloa relatively peaceful all these years.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.