MEXICO CITY — Mexican marines backed by US agents captured crime lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman near dawn this morning in the Pacific beach resort of Mazatlan.
Guzman, 56, was arrested at a hotel without a shot fired, officials said. Pictures of the arrested gangster showed him shirtless, suggesting he was in bed at the time he was nabbed, reportedly with female company.
“This is a clear indication of the effort we are making in this country to disarm the criminal organizations,” Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told a press conference at Mexico's City airport shortly before Guzman was walked before television cameras to a waiting helicopter.
One of two masked marine escorts roughly grabbed the short, slightly paunchy gang boss's neck, forcing his gaze toward toward the tarmac.
Guzman's arrest is a major victory for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who has faced criticism from Washington for dialing back cooperation with US law enforcement since taking office nearly 15 months ago. Peña has defended his strategy as favoring intelligence over brute force in taking on the powerful criminal gangs.
News of Guzman's fall was first leaked out of Washington to the Associated Press, a break in protocol in which US agencies usually allow Mexican officials to announce such achievements.
Guzman's capture resulted from months of intelligence work by Mexican and US agencies, Murillo said. It capped a week-long operation by the Mexican marines in Culiacan, Sinaloa's capital, in which top aides to Guzman associate Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada were captured.
The marines came close to capturing Guzman, whose nickname "El Chapo" means "Shorty," several times, Murillo said, but pulled back because officials “preferred not to put the public at risk.” Houses raided by the marines had steel reinforced doors and seven of them were connected by tunnels, allowing Guzman and other targets to escape, Murillo said.
Calling Guzman's arrest a "landmark achievement," US Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement that officials in Washington "are pleased we were able to work effectively with Mexico. We look forward to ongoing cooperation and future successes."
Guzman's fall may well set off more violence as underlings fight to replace him. Gangland rivals now likely will try to gain control against the smuggling routes and other vice controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel.
"Chapo Guzman is a singular, almost mythic figure in Mexico’s criminal underworld, so his arrest is a huge accomplishment," David Shirk, an expert on Mexican organized crime writes on the website of the Mexico Institute of Washington DC Woodrow Wilson Center.
"That said, the net impact— in terms of drug flows, drug consumption, or the flow of US firearms to Mexico— is unlikely to be very significant," Shirk writes. "We don’t even have a very clear sense of how Guzman’s arrest will change the dynamics within the Sinaloa Cartel."
Zambada, considered the second most powerful of Sinaloa's bosses, is the most likely to replace Guzman. But security forces have hit Zambada's own organization particularly hard in recent months, killing or arresting many of his top operators, including a son.
For all his own notoriety, and the brutality carried out by underlings in places like Ciudad Juarez, Guzman has proved something of a stabilizing influence amid seven years of hyper violence in Mexico.
An old-style drug trafficker, Guzman long has presented himself as less bloody gangster. He's pronounced himself against the extortion, kidnapping and murder carried out by other gangs across Mexico.
Since mysteriously slipping out of a maximum security prison in January 2001, Guzman has become the most recognized face of Mexico's large and violent underworld.
Guzman also faces a number of US drug trafficking indictments, in New York, Chicago and San Diego. The city of Chicago last year named him Public Enemy No. 1, the first time that designation was applied to anyone since Al Capone.
The US government had put a $5 million bounty on Guzman's head. He was removed Saturday from the DEA's most wanted list.
As titular head of the so-called Sinaloa Cartel, Guzman's empire stretches across Mexico and the United States, deep into Central and South America, Europe and Asia.
Forbes Magazine since 2009 repeatedly listed Guzman, born to a poor farm family in the mountains of Sinaloa state, as one of the richest men in the world. But he was dropped from the list last year because his wealth couldn't be verified. Guzman's 24-year-old third wife gave birth to twin girls in Los Angeles in September 2011.
The DEA and Mexican federal police had come within minutes of capturing Guzman two years ago in Los Cabos, Baja California. US agents believe the gangster managed to escape after being tipped off by someone inside the police. Guzman's personal pilot, cook and a girlfriend were apprehended.
Mexican navy special forces became Washington's favored strike force under former President Felipe Calderon. Though that cooperation reportedly had been reduced under Peña Nieto, the navy has taken down most of the senior gangsters killed or captured in the past year, including both leaders of the notorious Zetas gang.
The special forces include an 1,800 strong marine brigade based in Mexico City and a US trained 400-man elite unit stationed in four rapid-response bases around the country.
Among other successes, marines killed Sinaloa kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva in December 2009 and brutal Zetas boss Heriberto Lazcano in October 2012. They captured another Zetas leader, Miguel Angel Treviño, without a shot fired last summer near the south Texas border.
"The specially created Navy team has been very persistent," Calderon tweeted Saturday afternoon in congratulating the marines on Guzman's arrest. "It found Lazcano, Treviño and now Guzman."
The Navy's privileged role under Calderon irritated other Mexican security services, causing Peña Nieto to make it a policy to spread credit around among all the security forces. He did so again Saturday on Twitter, attributing Guzman's arrest to all the major security players, without mentioning the US agencies' participation.
Guzman's arrest came three days after a one-day summit near Mexico City between Peña, President Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in which security issues were downplayed. But all three vowed to continue cooperating on anti-crime operations.