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The Takedown of a Cartel Kingpin

The end of the manhunt didn’t match the mystique of the target. Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, kingpin of the Sinaloa drug cartel, was finally nabbed around sunrise on Feb. 22, when Mexican commandos stormed a cream-colored building in the seaside city of Mazatlán. The criminal giant known as Shorty was sleeping shirtless inside a modest apartment with white tile floors, pink suitcases strewn across a sagging mattress. After a 13-year chase, he was taken without a fight.

The historic capture was the product of transnational collaboration–a commodity that has often been in short supply. When it comes to the drug war, the U.S. and Mexico have an uneasy alliance. Corruption is endemic across Mexico. But the Mexicans don’t always hold the U.S. in high regard, and for good reason. Over the past decade, more than 100 U.S. border agents have been charged with corruption.

But in recent years, the partnership has strengthened. “The U.S. and Mexico have been on the same page more,” says Malcolm Beith, author of a book about the hunt for Guzmán. The Mexican government, which has been forced to triage threats posed by rival cartels, prioritized the crackdown on the Sinaloa empire, which is reputed to stretch into 54 countries. And the U.S., which has been frustrated with the graft-riddled Mexican army, found new and trustworthy partners.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration now works closely with small teams from the Mexican navy and marines. “DEA and other U.S. agencies trust them,” says Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star U.S. Army general who led antidrug efforts under President Clinton. As the hunt for Guzmán grew hotter, the DEA mined its network of confidential informants on both sides of the border, as well as a web of judicially approved wiretaps, and fed the information to Mexican partners.

About a month ago, the Mexicans used U.S. intelligence to launch a series of successful raids. Key Sinaloa lieutenants were captured. The Mexicans carried out the busts, with U.S. agents providing operational and intelligence support, according to U.S. law-enforcement sources. “DEA and the U.S. Marshals have been working in the field with Mexican marines for the last three weeks,” says Michael Braun, former chief of operations for the DEA. “They’re providing them with real-time intelligence.”

In mid-February, Mexican commandos traced a number stored in a seized cell phone to a home in the Sinaloan capital of Culiacán. They arrested a cartel official, who gave up the location of another house. Guzmán was hiding inside. As the cops struggled to break through steel-reinforced doors, the cartel kingpin escaped through a secret passage beneath a bathtub, which led to a maze of special tunnels linking seven safe houses in the area.

But the near miss marked the beginning of the endgame. Less than a week later, one of the world’s most wanted men was apprehended inside unit 401 of a Mazatlán condo tower overlooking the sea. “A lot of the success,” says a U.S. law-enforcement official with knowledge of the situation, “goes to the strong personal relationships that our agents in Mexico have with the navy and the marines.”



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