Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman (C) is escorted by soldiers during a presentation at the Navy's airstrip in Mexico City February 22, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Henry Romero
Mexico's most wanted man, drug cartel kingpin Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, was captured on Saturday with help from U.S. agencies in a major victory for the government in a long, brutal drugs war.
Guzman, known as "El Chapo" (Shorty) in Spanish, has long run Mexico's infamous Sinaloa Cartel. Over the past decade, he has emerged as one of the world's most powerful organized crime bosses.
He was caught in his native northwestern state of Sinaloa in an early morning operation without a shot being fired, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said, adding that Guzman's identity had been 100 percent confirmed.
It is a political triumph for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office in late 2012. Pena Nieto confirmed the capture via Twitter earlier on Saturday and congratulated his security forces. The U.S. government also applauded the arrest.
Guzman's cartel has smuggled billions of dollars worth of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines into the United States, and fought vicious turf wars with other Mexican gangs.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the fighting, especially in western and northern regions that have long been key smuggling routes.
Many of the victims have been tortured and beheaded and their bodies dumped in a public place or in mass graves. The violence has ravaged border cities and even beach resorts like Acapulco.
Authorities said Guzman, 56, was captured in a pre-dawn raid on a seaside condominium in the northwestern resort of Mazatlan, and then flown to Mexico City.
Wearing a cream shirt and dark jeans and with a black moustache, he was frog-marched in front of reporters on live TV, bound for prison.
It was the first public glimpse of the elusive kingpin since he escaped from prison in 2001.
The 5-foot 6-inch Guzman looked briefly toward TV cameras waiting on the tarmac outside the Marines' hangar at Mexico City's airport, before his head was shoved back down by a soldier wearing a face mask.
Murillo Karam said security forces had nearly caught Guzman days earlier, but he gave them the slip.
"The doors of the house ... were reinforced with steel and so in the minutes it took us to open them, it allowed for an escape through tunnels," Murillo Karam said.
They then tracked him down again and waited for the right moment to strike, he said, adding that "some U.S. agencies" had helped in capturing Guzman.
He gave no more details but a U.S. Homeland Security source said Mexican forces worked jointly with agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Marshals Service.
Murillo Karam did not say whether Guzman would face trial in Mexico or be extradited to the United States.
Alberto Islas, a security expert with Risk Evaluation, said Pena Nieto ordered his cabinet to capture Guzman immediately after taking office in December 2012, and handed the job to the Marines, widely seen as less corrupt than other security forces.
Citing people involved in the operation, he said 25 Marines entered the condominium where Guzman was staying and evaded two security teams there to protect the drug lord. Guzman and three other people, including a woman, were asleep at the time.
The whole operation took around 7-1/2 minutes, Islas said. Neighbors only realized it had taken place when they heard the helicopter whisking Guzman away, he added.
Guzman's exploits have made him a legend in many impoverished communities of northern Mexico, where he has been immortalized in dozens of ballads and low budget movies.
The United States had placed a $5 million bounty on Guzman's head and authorities in Chicago last year dubbed him the city's first Public Enemy No. 1 since gangster Al Capone.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder described the arrest as "a landmark achievement, and a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States."
"The criminal activity Guzman allegedly directed contributed to the death and destruction of millions of lives across the globe through drug addiction, violence, and corruption," Holder said in a statement.
The Homeland Security source said U.S. agents assisted on the ground near the arrest site, and that the operation was the result of connecting many dots, not a single tip.
"I don't think either the Mexicans or our guys could have done this by themselves," he said. "We've been searching for years and wouldn't have been in this position without leveraging and combining assets from Mexico, the DEA, ICE and the Marshals."
Nearly 80,000 people have died in drug-related killings in Mexico since former President Felipe Calderon sent in the army in early 2007 to quell the powerful drug bosses, a policy that Pena Nieto has criticized but found tough to break with.
There has been some concern in the United States that Pena Nieto's government might not be as aggressive in pursuing cartel leaders, but Guzman's capture will ease those fears.
"Chapo is the jewel in the crown, the most-wanted drug boss in recent years and, in that sense, this is a great success," said Jorge Chabat, an expert on drug trafficking at the CIDE research center.