Nation & World

Safe houses key to drug king’s capture

MEXICO CITY — The half-dozen Mexican navy commandos who burst into room 401 of the Miramar condominium building in the beach town of Mazatlan found the world’s most-wanted drug lord not armed to the teeth, but shirtless and curled up in bed with his secretary. An assault rifle, which he didn’t attempt to grab, lay by his side.

The arrival of the elite troops at this seaside condo tower early Saturday morning was the culmination of nine days of rapid-fire military raids and detective work across the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa state.

Mexican and U.S. authorities involved in the investigation offered new details on Sunday about how they put together a jigsaw puzzle that was 13 years in the making. They were helped by U.S.-supplied surveillance technology that allowed them to track the cellphone locations of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and his crew as they tried to escape capture through a warren of hidden sewer-line tunnels.

The arrest is a major victory for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, whose government and that of his predecessor had faced charges that they had accommodated Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel and preferred to target other groups. The drug lord’s capture shows the world that “we don’t have agreements with anyone,” said Tomas Zeron, the head of criminal investigations in the Mexican attorney general’s office. “The investigation was very good, and very well coordinated over many days, and this was the result.”

American law enforcement officials played a key role in the investigation of the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, one of the wealthiest and most powerful drug-running outfits in the world.

For at least a year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, as well as Drug Enforcement Administration agents and members of the U.S. Marshals Service, had worked the case. A key break occurred last November, at the desert border in Nogales, Ariz., when a son of Guzman’s top lieutenant, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, was arrested as part of a probe that included more than 100 wiretaps, according to a U.S. federal law enforcement official with knowledge of the case.

U.S. federal agents were “then able to climb the ladder from the guys at the border to the top ranks of the Sinaloa cartel. We were able to penetrate the inner circle,” the official said.

“It was a traditional drug investigation where one phone begets another phone that begets another phone,” he said. “It was really drug investigations 101.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity since he was not authorized to comment.

Current and former U.S. officials said that Guzman’s “sloppiness” — specifically his more frequent visits from his mountain hideout to the cities of Culiacan and Mazatlan, both in Sinaloa state — was key to the arrest.

Another big break in the case happened on Feb. 13, when Mexican marines raided a farmhouse outside Culiacan, the state capital, which has long been a stronghold for the Sinaloa cartel. At the ranch, the marines arrested five people described as hitmen for the cartel, including Jose Enrique Sandoval Romero, known as “El Loco,” or “The Crazy One,” and two of his brothers, according to Mexican officials.

Using information from that arrest, the marines went three days later to the house of Guzman’s ex-wife in Culiacan, having learned that the trafficker was inside. As the marines tried to knock down a steel-enforced door, Guzman managed to escape through a trap door under the bathtub and to descend a steel ladder that led to an elaborate network of underground tunnels that wove through the sewer system and connected at least seven other houses in the area, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. The marines were able to arrest a Guzman associate and found methamphetamines, cocaine and marijuana.

“He was able to escape from us at least twice,” said the U.S. federal law enforcement official. “He had a direct sense that we were after him.”

During these days, as police blocked off streets in Culiacan, searched houses and found caches of drugs and weapons and fleets of armored cars, top officials of the Mexican navy and the federal prosecutor’s office were holding emergency meetings to coordinate the hunt for Guzman, who had escaped from a high-security prison in 2001 and grew into the world’s most powerful drug lord in the intervening years.

American investigators sifted through the trove of new intelligence about Guzman’s safe houses, and “all the agencies started to strategize, looking at stash houses, associates — and the puzzle started coming together,” according to Mike Vigil, a retired senior DEA official who worked for 13 years in Mexico and was briefed on the arrest.

Mexican officials said the United States also contributed with technology that allowed them to geolocate the cellphones and satellite phones used by the cartel.

On Feb. 19 and 20, three more Guzman lieutenants were arrested in Culiacan — Manuel Lopez, Cesar de la Cruz and Jesus Pena Gonzalez — along with hundreds of kilograms of cocaine, more weapons and vehicles, officials said.

Last Friday, the 21, Guzman made his move to Mazatlan, a seaside resort town about 135 miles south of Culiacan. Mexican officials said he was driven there by his associates and arrived at the Miramar, a pale-yellow condominium tower off the beach, where he was renting unit 401.

“Instead of fleeing back into the mountains, he made the fatal mistake of going into Mazatlán,” Vigil said.

Guzman had arrived at the condo with a woman described as his secretary, and lover, as well as a security guard known as El Condor, according to two American officials. With his location pinpointed, about six Mexican Navy commandos burst into the room at 6:40 a.m. Inside, they found Guzman shirtless and asleep with his paramour.

“He didn’t put up any resistance,” Vigil said. “He was physically tired from the stress of being hunted.”

The arrest occurred without violence and Guzman, after submitting to DNA tests to confirm his identity, was flown to Mexico City where he appeared briefly in front of reporters on a navy tarmac. Guzman has been taken to a federal maximum security prison in Almoloya de Juarez in the state of Mexico, outside Mexico City.

One question now is whether Guzman will stand trial in Mexico or be extradited to the United States. For now, officials on both sides were relieved they caught the whale of Mexican drug trafficking.

“This is a huge case,” the U.S. official said. “A big deal for us and a big deal for the Mexicans.”