Mexican Marines Capture Drug Kingpin ‘El Chapo’ in Major Victory for Armed Forces

By Geraldine Cook
January 11, 2016

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Mexican Marines captured notorious drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera in the state of Sinaloa. He had been on the run since he escaped from a Mexican prison in July.

The dramatic capture of fugitive drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera by Mexican Marines is a major victory for the country’s Armed Forces, its law enforcement agencies, and President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration.

“Mission Accomplished: We have him,” President Peña Nieto tweeted on the afternoon of January 8th, after El Chapo was arrested during a pre-dawn operation. The re-capture of the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel – the world’s largest transnational criminal organization – “is an achievement in favor of the rule of law,” the president added. The Sinaloa Cartel is responsible for tens of thousands of killings and transports massive amounts of heroin, cocaine, and synthetic drugs into the United States, Europe, and Australia.

The Marines captured El Chapo following a gun battle inside a home where he had been hiding in a middle-class neighborhood in the seaside town of Los Mochis, in his home state of Sinaloa. Five of El Chapo’s operatives were killed and six cartel members were captured during the firefight in which one Marine was wounded.

During the gun battle, El Chapo fled and tried to escape through underground sewer tunnels. The Marines were prepared for such a tactic and quickly captured him and his security chief, Jorge Ivan Avila Gastélum. With those arrests, Mexican security forces have captured or killed 98 of 122 high-priority organized crime figures. The Armed Forces and police have arrested or killed 90 of these criminals since Peña Nieto took office in 2012.

By the night of January 8th, the Military had flown El Chapo to Mexico City, where security forces transported him to the maximum-security prison in Altiplano, about 55 miles west of the capital. El Chapo escaped from the facility this past July by lowering himself through a hole in the shower of his prison cell and making his way through a sophisticated tunnel to a vacant house about a mile away.

A victory for the rule of law

The arrest of El Chapo – the world’s most-wanted fugitive – is a significant achievement for Mexican authorities in their battle against organized crime.

“This capture represents an opportunity for the Mexican government to demonstrate its capacity to fight organized crime,” said Armando Rodríguez Luna, a researcher at the Collective for the Analysis of Security with Democracy in Mexico City.

The Attorney General’s office will seek to extradite El Chapo to the United States, as federal grand juries in several states, including California, Texas, and Illinois, have indicted the drug kingpin on charges including drug trafficking, murder, and conspiracy, Mexican newspaper El Universal

While El Chapo’s capture is significant, the Armed Forces and law enforcement organizations must remain vigilant in their fight against drug-trafficking groups because the Sinaloa Cartel and other transnational criminal organizations will continue their illegal activities. “Like an octopus – you cut off one tentacle and another one grows,” said Luis Gómez, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

The Sinaloa Cartel’s leadership structure allows it to continue its criminal activities even if its leader is captured, Rodríguez Luna explained. He noted that El Chapo’s top lieutenant, Ismael “E Mayo” Zambada García, has run the organization in the past when El Chapo was incarcerated – and can do so again.

Intelligence and planning led to dramatic capture

El Chapo’s capture capped a massive investigation during which the Armed Forces and law enforcement authorities used intelligence to find him. Federal forces obtained more than 300 statements and conducted more than two dozen searches as part of the hunt for El Chapo, Attorney General Arely Gómez González said, adding El Chapo’s meetings with actors and producers for a documentary he wanted to make of his life opened a new line of investigation.

Security forces determined El Chapo was setting up operations in the state of Durango, purchasing properties, vehicles, aircraft, and runways. The Armed Forces also concluded El Chapo was hiding in a ranch in the municipality of Pueblo Nuevo. In October, the Marines raided the ranch and spotted El Chapo, but decided not to engage because he was with two women and a child, allowing him to escape.

Recently, the Marines received information that El Chapo and a number of armed men were at a home in a middle-class neighborhood in Los Mochis, where they were fired upon by El Chapo’s bodyguards at the raid’s outset. At the home, they found two armored vehicles and an arsenal of nine firearms, including 50-caliber rifles and an M-16 with a grenade launcher attached.

While the Marines engaged in a gun battle with El Chapo’s men at the home, the drug kingpin and one of his men tried to escape through the town’s underground sewage tunnels. They emerged on a street and commandeered a car, but the Marines were expecting this tactic, and chased El Chapo and his operative through the tunnels. El Chapo, Avila Gastélum, and other Sinaloa Cartel operatives emerged through a manhole and commandeered four cars, but the Marines quickly captured them.

Attorney General Gómez González praised the Mexican Army, Navy, Federal Police, and the Center for Investigation and National Security for their efforts to re-capture El Chapo.

Prison escapes

Last July, El Chapo escaped from the Altiplano maximum-security prison by dropping into a hole beneath the shower in his prison cell and using a near mile-long tunnel that was connected to a nearby vacant home. Sinaloa Cartel operatives whisked El Chapo away on a small plane, while another small aircraft served as a decoy. Law enforcement authorities have since arrested several individuals who helped El Chapo escape, including one who directed the building of the tunnel and the man who purchased the property where the house was built.

That was El Chapo’s second escape from a Mexican prison. In 1993, he escaped another high-security prison by reportedly hiding in a laundry cart. He remained a fugitive for nearly 21 years, until a team of Mexican Marines captured him in February 2014 in the Mexican resort town of Mazatlan on the Pacific coast.
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