Mexican authorities on Feb. 22 announced the arrest of the country's top drug lord, the notorios Joaquin Guzmán Loera AKA "El Chapo" (Shorty) -- who had eluded capture for over 10 years, despite a supposed manhunt and a massive price on his head. Chapo was detained in Mazatlán, Sinaloa and immediately transferred by Federal Police helicopter accompanied by an escort of two Armed Forces helicopters to the top-security Federal Center for Social Rehabilitation No. 1 at Altiplano, México state. The prison has since been under escalated security measures, ringed by armed troops, with nearby highways patrolled by convoys of Federal Police vehicles.
Mexican press accounts said the arrest was fortuitous, beginning with a stake-out aimed at capturing Ismael El Mayo Zambada AKA "El Mayo" -- a lesser kingpin in the Sinaloa Cartel. Mexican marines in late January established a ring of surveillance around the fishing community of El Conchal outside El Dorado, up the Sinaloa coast from Mazatlán. El Mayo was apparently not captured -- but several associates were, as marines observed comings and going at El Conchal. Safe-houses were raided in the nearby state capital, Culiacán, and Feb. 16 saw a fierce gun-battle between troops and suspects on the northern outskirts of the city. One of the raided properties reportedly belonged to Griselda Pérez López, Chapo's ex-wife, where a high-ranking operative named as Jesús Peña González "El 20" was detained. "El 20" apparently agreed to talk, and revealed the whereabouts of Chapo
El Mayo remains at large, but his son Serafin Zambada was arrested by US authorities in November as he crossed into Arizona. In December, Zambada's main lieutenant -- Gonzalo Inzunza AKA "El Macho Prieto" -- was killed as Federal Police helicopter gunships sprayed bullets at his mansion in the Sonora resort city of Puerto Penasco in the climax of a four-hour gunbattle.
El Chapo faces multiple federal drug charges in the United States and is on the DEA's most-wanted list, although there has not yet been any talk of extradition. The DEA may have played a role in the operation that snared him. Mexican Prosecutor General Jesús Murillo Karam in announcing the arrest cited "collaboration with some agencies of the United States."
Just as popular imagination had Osama bin Laden hiding in the remote mountiains of Pakistan's borderlands when he was actually living a comfortable urban life, El Chapo was believed to be hiding in the rugged mountains of Durango -- not balmy, bustling Mazatlán. Authorities had maintained that he ruled his criminal network from a secluded redoubt in the Sierra Madre Occidental, protected by a private army of gunmen and the loyalty of local residents who revered him as "El Señor" -- The Lord. He had eluded authorities since his 2001 escape from Puente Grande prison in Jalisco, supposedly in a laundry truck. He had a $7 million price on his head. Forbes magazine has included him on its list of the world's richest men, reportedly worth more than $1 billion. Speculation had mounted in recent years that, supposed manhunt notwithstanding, Chapo was actually being protected by the Mexican authoriites, who had developed a special relationship with the Sinaloa Cartel.
But since the once-entrenched machine of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) returned to power in Mexico in 2012, commentators have wondered if this special relationship would be broken. Under the PRI's long rule, there had been a "Pax Mafiosa," in which the Mexican government balanced the rival cartels by protecting each on its turf in exchange for a slice of the narco-proceeds through networks of official corruption. Violence between rival cartels was kept within manageable limits. Under the 2000-2012 rule of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), a government tilt to the Sinaloa syndicate may have contributed to the narco-violence nearly reaching the level of a civil war. It remains to be seen if Chapo's capture really represents a retreat from the brink...