MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico recaptured the world’s top drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman with U.S. help after a pre-dawn shootout on Friday, six months after he humiliated the government with his second jaw-dropping escape from a maximum security prison.
The head of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel was captured at a roadside motel after an operation that killed five at a safe house in the city of Los Mochis, in the drug baron’s native northwestern state of Sinaloa.
“Mission accomplished: We have him,” President Enrique Pena Nieto said on his Twitter account. “I want to inform all Mexicans that Joaquin Guzman Loera has been arrested.”
For Pena Nieto, the capture of a trafficker who twice slipped out of Mexican prisons is a sorely-needed victory after his presidency was tarnished by graft and human rights scandals and the shame of the kingpin’s flight in July.
It also provides a major boost for U.S.-Mexico relations, strained by the apparent ease with which Guzman gave Mexican authorities the slip after the United States requested his extradition.
Once featured in the Forbes list of billionaires, Guzman has led a cartel that smuggled billions of dollars worth of cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines into the United States and fought vicious turf wars with other Mexican gangs.
Guzman, whose nickname means “Shorty”, first escaped prison in 2001 by bribing prison officials, and went on to dominate drug trafficking along much of the Rio Grande.
He was recaptured by Pena Nieto’s government 13 years later but again fled, this time through a mile-long tunnel which burrowed right up into the shower in his cell, capitalizing on the drug-tunneling skills his cartel honed on the U.S. border.
The escape heaped embarrassment on Pena Nieto, who had resisted a U.S. request to extradite Guzman and had said previously that an escape would be “unforgivable.”
Dozens of people were arrested over the jailbreak, though details of who Guzman bribed and how his accomplices knew exactly where to dig into the prison remain scarce.
Scant official details were available of his recapture on Friday, but it involved Mexican marines, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and U.S. Marshals, a senior Mexican police source said.
The source said Guzman was captured from the Hotel Doux, a motel on the outskirts of Los Mochis once popular with North Americans travelling south.
Residents described gunfire and explosions from about 3:30 a.m. (0930 GMT) and said Marines stormed house after house and searched storm drains for the fugitive.
Schools were closed as helicopters clattered overhead.
“The teachers were coming out terrified because they had heard the rumours that he was fleeing in the city’s drains,” said Ana Bertotti, 30, a housewife who crossed town to find her child’s kindergarten closed.
One photograph widely circulated on social media, but that could not be independently verified by Reuters, appeared to show Guzman sitting handcuffed on a hotel bed, in a room that resembled those shown on the Hotel Doux website. He was wearing a filthy vest and a poster of a scantily clad woman was pinned on the wall behind him.
A receptionist at the motel told Reuters she understood Guzman had been captured there.
Another photo appeared to show Guzman without handcuffs and wearing the same vest in the back of vehicle next to one of his top assassins.
U.S. officials and the DEA, which has had a bumpy relationship with its Mexican counterparts, took no credit and congratulated Mexico on the capture.
“This notorious criminal is – and will remain – behind bars, until he faces justice in a court of law,” said DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg.
EXTRADITION WILL ‘TAKE TIME’
Guzman now faces the prospect of extradition to the United States.
After coming under fire for failing to do so the last time, Mexico’s Attorney General’s office said after his escape in July it had approved an order to extradite him north of the border.
On Friday, the U.S. Justice department said its previous request to extradite Guzman to the United States still stands and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the kingpin will have to answer for his alleged crimes.
In a celebratory speech in his ceremonial palace, Pena Nieto said the capture was the result of months of work by Mexican intelligence and security agencies and the attorney general’s office. He did not mention U.S. assistance.
Guzman is wanted by U.S. authorities for various criminal charges including cocaine smuggling and money laundering. An official at the attorney general’s office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his extradition would “take time”.
In 2013, Chicago dubbed him its first Public Enemy No.1 since Al Capone, the gangster who won notoriety in the 1920s.
Guzman’s lawyer in October appealed against possible extradition in case his client was captured.
Guzman, believed to be 58 years old, was born in La Tuna, a village in the Sierra Madre mountains in Sinaloa state where smugglers have been growing opium and marijuana since the early 20th century.
In 1993, police arrested him in Guatemala and extradited him to Mexico. Guzman used money to ease his eight year prison stay, smuggling in lovers, prostitutes and Viagra, according to international and domestic media reports.
The 5-foot, 6-inch gangster’s exploits made him a hero to many poor villagers in and around Sinaloa, where he was immortalized in dozens of ballads and low budget movies.
Still, many people in towns and villages across Mexico remember Guzman better for his squads of armed gunmen who carried out thousands of brutal slayings and kidnappings.
After Guzman’s first prison break, violence began to creep up in Mexico. The situation deteriorated during the 2006-2012 presidency of Pena Nieto’s conservative predecessor Felipe Calderon, when nearly 70,000 people lost their lives in gang-related mayhem.
After he managed to outmaneuver, outfight or outbribe his rivals to stay at the top of the business for over a decade, some security experts see in Guzman’s capture new hope for Mexico.
“This gives important credibility to the Mexican government. And the fact is, they’re starting to move forward in implementing the rule of law,” said Mike Vigil, former head of global operations for the DEA.
With reporting by Gabriel Stargardter, Christine Murray, Cyntia Barrera and Alexandra Alper; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Simon Gardner, Kieran Murray and Mary Milliken