LOS MOCHIS, Mexico (Reuters) - For years the world’s most wanted drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman used tunnels to smuggle billions of dollars worth of drugs into the United States and to evade capture - until Mexico’s government got wise to his game.
Six months after a brazen jailbreak worthy of Hollywood, escaping a maximum security prison through a mile-long tunnel from his cell, Mexico’s security forces turned the tables on Guzman on Friday.
After tracking Guzman down to a house in Los Mochis, in his native northwestern state of Sinaloa, Mexican Marines chased the head of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel and his chief assassin through a drain and then nabbed them as he tried to flee by car.
Security forces had identified a tunnel expert in Guzman’s circle who was outfitting houses in Sinaloa, and that helped lead to the drug baron’s capture, Mexico’s Attorney General Arely Gomez said.
“During the confrontation, Guzman Loera managed to escape through the city’s drainage system, which had already been factored into the capture strategy,” Gomez said late on Friday, as Guzman was whisked by helicopter to the same maximum security prison in central Mexico he broke out of in July.
Guzman’s arrest is a major boost for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who was highly embarrassed by last year’s jailbreak, Guzman’s second in 15 years.
It is also a shot in arm for relations between Mexico and the U.S. government, heavily strained by last year’s escape. Guzman now faces the prospect of extradition to the United States to face drug smuggling charges.
The dramatic capture followed a six month-long intelligence operation. Gomez said Guzman was almost caught in October, when Marines in a helicopter zeroed in on him near a ranch in the rugged northern state of Durango.
But the kingpin was spied in the company of two women and a young girl, prompting the Marines to hold fire and allowing him to slip their grasp.
The encounter pushed Guzman deeper into Mexico’s notorious “Golden Triangle”, where the bulk of the country’s opium and marijuana are produced, limiting his communications and cutting down his security detail to a small core.
But for reasons that are unclear, El Chapo had by December decided to hide out in cities. The tunnel-builder began outfitting homes across the northern states of Sinaloa and Sonora.
Authorities caught wind of it and began carefully watching a house in Los Mochis. They spotted unusual activity when a vehicle pulled up before dawn on January 7, and intelligence officials confirmed Guzman was on the property. The raid followed.
After chasing him through a drain and stopping his getaway car, the Marines took Guzman and made an unscheduled stop - waiting for reinforcements at Hotel Doux, a love motel on the outskirts of town that rents out rooms for a few hours at a time.
Guzman also slipped up, and his yearning for the silver screen helped bring him down.
“Another important aspect which helped locate him was discovering Guzman’s intention to have a biographical film made. He contacted actresses and producers, which was part of one line of investigation,” Gomez said.
With reporting by Alexandra Alper; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray