International

Mexico's billionaire drug kingpin 'El Chapo' caught

Fugitive head of the the Sinaloa cartel arrested by US and Mexican authorities at hotel resort in Mexico

Joaquin Guzman Loera is escorted by Mexican marines and presented to the press, on Feb. 22, 2014 in Mexico City.
Alfredo Estrella/Getty Images

The head of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel – who was widely considered the world's most powerful drug lord – was captured overnight by U.S. and Mexican authorities at a hotel in Mazatlan, Mexico, ending a bloody and decades-long career that terrorized large swaths of the country. 

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera was taken alive during the night by Mexican marines in the beach resort town, Mexican and U.S. official said Saturday.

Guzman's nickname means "Shorty," but he towered over the world’s illegal drug trade. He is believed to be the main supplier of drugs to the United States and many other countries, according to The New York Times.

Despite his capture, it is likely that new leaders are waiting to take his place. 

Guzman, 56, was found with an unidentified woman. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Marshals Service were "heavily involved" in the capture, said a senior U.S. law enforcement official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Reports said no shots were fired in the operation.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Saturday issued a statement praising the capture and quoting Attorney General Eric Holder as saying: “The criminal activity Guzman allegedly directed contributed to the death and destruction of millions of lives across the globe through drug addiction, violence, and corruption.”

Guzman faces multiple federal drug trafficking indictments in the U.S. and is on the DEA's most-wanted list. His drug empire stretches throughout North America and reaches as far away as Europe and Australia.

His cartel has been heavily involved in the violent drug war that has torn through parts of Mexico for the last several years.

A legendary outlaw, Guzman had been heavily pursued for several weeks. His arrest comes on the heels of the takedown of several top Sinaloa operatives in the past few months, and at least 10 mid-level cartel members in the past week.

The son of Sinaloa's co-leader and Guzman's partner, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, was arrested in November after entering Arizona, where he had an appointment with U.S. immigration authorities to arrange legal status for his wife.

The following month, Zambada's main lieutenant was killed as Mexican helicopter gunships sprayed bullets at his mansion in the Gulf of California resort of Puerto Penasco in a four-hour gunbattle.

Days later, police in the Netherlands arrested Zambada's flamboyant top enforcer as he arrived in Amsterdam.

Guzman's capture ended a long and storied manhunt. He was rumored to live everywhere from Argentina to Guatemala since he slipped out in 2001 from prison in a laundry truck – a spectacular feat that fed his larger-than-life persona.

Because insiders aided his escape, rumors circulated for years that he was helped and protected by former Mexican President Felipe Calderon's government, which vanquished some of his top rivals.

In more than a decade on the run, Guzman transformed himself from a middling Mexican capo into arguably the most powerful drug trafficker in the world.

At one point, his fortune grew to more than $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which listed him among the "World's Most Powerful People" and ranked him above the presidents of France and Venezuela.

In 2013, the financial magazine took Guzman off the list, saying it was likely security expenses had cut into his trove.

His Sinaloa Cartel grew bloodier and more powerful, taking over much of the lucrative trafficking routes along the U.S. border, including such prized cities as Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.

Guzman's play for power against local cartels caused a bloodbath in Tijuana and made Juarez one of the deadliest cities in the world.

In little more than a year, Mexico's biggest marijuana bust, 134 tons, and its biggest cultivation outfit were tied to Sinaloa, as were a giant underground methamphetamine lab in western Mexico and hundreds of tons of precursor chemicals seized in Mexico and Guatemala.

His cartel's tentacles now extend as far as Australia thanks to a sophisticated, international distribution system for cocaine and methamphetamines.

"There's no drug-trafficking organization in Mexico with the scope, the savvy, the operational ability, expertise and knowledge as the Sinaloa cartel," said one former U.S. law enforcement official, who couldn't be quoted by name for security reasons. "You've kind of lined yourself up the New York Yankees of the drug trafficking world."

Guzman's success and infamy surpassed those of Colombia's Pablo Escobar, who was gunned down by police in 1993 after waging a decade-long reign of terror in the South American country, killing hundreds of police, judges, journalists and politicians.

While his capture may have symbolic importance, many – including his former partner, Zambada – have said it won't stop the violence or flow of drugs through Mexico to the United States.

"When it comes to the capos, jailed, dead or extradited – their replacements are ready," Zambada said in an exclusive interview published in Proceso magazine in April 2010.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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