MEXICO CITY—Mexican marines had barely faced down .50-caliber sniper guns and a loaded grenade launcher to recapture the world’s most notorious drug lord when the calls started coming: Extradite Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to the United States. And soon.
Mexico’s leaders avoided talk about extradition following Guzman’s capture early Friday, but even if they decided to send him to the U.S., the process likely would not be fast. For now, they have sent him back to the Altiplano maximum-security prison from which he escaped in July.
Guzman, head of the powerful, international Sinaloa Cartel, was presented late Friday in dark blue athletic clothing. He was frog-marched to a helicopter by marines, who stopped mid-transit and turned his expressionless face toward the media for a clear view.
The calls for his quick extradition were the same as those after the February 2014 capture of Guzman, who faces drug-trafficking charges in several U.S. states. At the time, Mexico’s government insisted it could handle the man who had already broken out of one maximum-security prison, saying he must pay his debt to Mexican society first.
Then Guzman escaped a second time on July 11 under the noses of guards and prison officials at Mexico’s most secure lock-up, slipping out an elaborate tunnel that showed the country’s depth of corruption while thoroughly embarrassing the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto.
In celebrating Guzman’s latest capture, Mexican officials showed none of their bravado of two years ago, though they made clear that the intelligence building and investigation were carried out entirely by Mexican forces. They did not mention extradition.
“They have to extradite him,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst in Mexico. “It’s almost a forced move.”
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate, echoed that sentiment, demanding that Guzman be immediately turned over to U.S. authorities. “Given that ‘El Chapo’ has already escaped from Mexican prison twice, this third opportunity to bring him to justice cannot be squandered,” Rubio said.
Pena Nieto went on Twitter to announce the capture: “Mission accomplished: we have him.”
Guzman, a legendary figure in Mexico who went from a farmer’s son to the world’s top drug lord, was apprehended after a shootout between gunmen and Mexican marines at the home in Los Mochis, a seaside city in Guzman’s home state of Sinaloa.
Apparently Guzman thought his story was worthy of Hollywood. Part of the reason authorities tracked him down to a house in an upscale neighborhood in a coastal city was because he wanted to film a biopic, Attorney General Arely Gomez said late Friday at the airport ceremony where the prisoner was shown off to the press.
“For that he established communication with actresses and producers, which became a new line of investigation,” she said.
Friday’s operation resulted from six months of investigation and intelligence-gathering by Mexican forces, who located Guzman in Durango state in October but decided not to shoot because he was with two women and a child, she said. After that he took a lower profile and limited his communication until he decided to move to Los Mochis in December.
Gomez said that one of Guzman’s key tunnel builders led them to the neighborhood in Los Mochis, where authorities did surveillance for a month. The team noticed a lot of activity at the house Wednesday and the arrival of a car early Thursday morning. Authorities were able to determine that Guzman was inside the house, she said.
The marines decided to close in early Friday and were met with gunfire. Five suspects were killed and six others arrested. One marine was injured.
“You could hear intense gunfire and a helicopter; it was fierce,” said a neighbor, adding that the battle raged for three hours, starting at 4 a.m. She refused to be quoted by name in fear for her own safety.
Gomez said Guzman and his security chief, “El Cholo” Ivan Gastelum, were able to flee via storm drains and escape through a manhole cover to the street, where they commandeered getaway cars. Marines climbed into the drains in pursuit. They closed in on the two men based on reports of stolen vehicles and they were arrested on the highway.
The troops took them to the roadside hotel Doux, where they awaited reinforcements, Gomez said.
In 2014, Guzman evaded capture by fleeing through a network of interconnected tunnels in the drainage system under Culiacan, the Sinaloa state capital.
“The arrest of today is very important for the government of Mexico. It shows that the public can have confidence in its institutions,” Pena Nieto said later in a public address. “Mexicans can count on a government decided and determined to build a better country.”
What happens now is more crucial for Guzman, whose cartel smuggles multi-ton shipments of cocaine and marijuana as well as manufacturing and transporting methamphetamines and heroin, mostly to the U.S.
The United States filed requests for Guzman’s extradition last June 25, just days before he escaped from prison. In September, a judge issued a second provisional arrest warrant on U.S. charges of organized crime, money laundering, drug trafficking and homicide, among others. But Guzman’s lawyers already had filed appeals and received injunctions that could delay the extradition process for months or even years.
Marines seized two armored vehicles, eight rifles, one handgun and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher at the home in Los Mochis, the navy’s statement said.
Photos showed that two of the seized rifles were .50-caliber sniper guns, capable of penetrating most bullet-proof vests and cars. The grenade launcher was found loaded, with an extra round nearby. An assault rifle had a 40-mm grenade launcher and at least one grenade.
“The arrest is a significant achievement in our shared fight against transnational organized crime, violence, and drug trafficking,” the Drug Enforcement Administration said in a statement.
After his first capture in Guatemala in June 1993, Guzman was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He reportedly made his 2001 escape from the maximum security prison in a laundry cart, though some have discounted that version.
His second escape last year was even more audacious. He fled down a hole in his shower stall in plain view of guards into a mile-long tunnel dug from a property outside the prison. The tunnel had ventilation, lights and a motorbike on rails. Construction noise as a digger broke through from the tunnel to his cell was obvious inside the prison, according a video of Guzman in his cell just before he escaped.