- REUTERS/Henry Romero
- The Sinaloa cartel chief Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman broke out of jail and was on the run for 13 years.
- US authorities assisted Mexico with the hunt, helping bring down Guzman in early 2014.
- But that stint in jail would be short-lived.
By 2010, when a Drug Enforcement Administration agent named Drew Hogan arrived in Mexico City with his family, the Mexican kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman had been on the run for nine years.
The Sinaloa cartel chief had slipped out of a prison in southwest Mexico during the first weeks of 2001 – some say while hiding in a laundry basket.
Once on the ground in Mexico, Hogan picked up the trail “by looking at the details,” he said.
“The phone numbers don’t lie,” Hogan said. “And I was able to pair up with a crack team of Homeland Security investigative agents, and we began intercepting members of Chapo’s inner circle and starting to dismantle layers within his sophisticated communications structure until we got to the top, where I had his personal secretary’s device, who was standing right next to him, and I could ping that to establish a pattern of life to determine where he was at.”
The search for Guzman led authorities to his home turf in Sinaloa state, in northwest Mexico.
Sinaloa, where Guzman was born and got his start in the drug trade, is considered a cradle of Mexican drug trafficking, producing figures like the Guadalajara cartel chiefs Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, and Rafael Caro Quintero; the Sinaloa cartel chiefs Guzman, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, and Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, aka “El Azul”; and others, like the Juarez cartel chief Amado Carrillo Fuentes, aka “the Lord of the Skies,” and members of the Arellano Felix family, who ran the Tijuana cartel in the 1990s and 2000s.
Hogan’s search eventually led to Mazatlan, a resort town in southwestern Sinaloa state. There, Guzman had lived what Hogan described as an unremarkable lifestyle.
“I was surprised with the way that he lived,” Hogan said on Wednesday. “He almost afforded himself no luxury – same plastic tables and chairs in every safe house that was designed the same way.”
After 13 years on the run, however, Guzman had begun to let his guard down, venturing out of the rugged Sinaloa mountains to relax in Mazatlan and nearby Culiacan, the state capital.
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Several of his associates were captured or killed in the first weeks of 2014.
Near the end of February that year, Mexican marines stormed a house belonging to Guzman’s ex-wife, but they struggled to knock down a steel-reinforced door, allowing Guzman time to escape.
A few days later, they launched another raid targeting the elusive kingpin.
“We were at the Hotel Miramar,” Hogan said, and Guzman was on the fourth floor. “The Mexican marines went inside and started banging down doors. I was standing outside. I was worried about our perimeter. I was worried about him escaping us again. And I heard excited radio chatter: ‘They got him. They got him. They got the target.’
“My vehicle was first in. I drove it down to the underground parking garage, and that’s where they had him,” Hogan continued. “They were just standing him up. I got out of my vehicle, ran right up to him, I’m wearing this black ball cap that I had taken out of his closet … in Culiacan – my only souvenir of the hunt – wearing a black ski mask, and I ran right up to up to him, jumped into his face, and said the first thing that came to my head.
“I screamed, ‘What’s up, Chapo?!'”
Guzman’s capture was heralded in Mexico and abroad and held up by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto as a hallmark achievement of his efforts to combat criminal groups and drug-related violence in the country.
But Guzman’s time in prison was short-lived. In July 2015, the Sinaloa cartel chief again slipped out, this time through a mile-long tunnel dug from a partially constructed house to the Altiplano maximum-security prison and right up to the shower in Guzman’s cell.
“It was pretty predictable,” Hogan said of Guzman’s escape. “This tunnel that went underneath the prison was the same types of tunnels that went underneath the safe houses, were the same types of tunnels that are at the US-Mexico border.”
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Numerous security lapses were discovered in the aftermath.
Altiplano had the same layout as the prison Guzman broke out of in 2001. (A former Mexican security official who joined the Sinaloa cartel is suspected of stealing the prison plans.)
Reports indicated that a geolocation device Guzman had to wear may have been used by his associates to locate him within the prison. Guzman told Mexican officials his henchmen were able to build two tunnels under the prison after the first one missed the cell.
Sounds of digging under his cell were detected but not investigated, and about 30 minutes passed between when Guzman went out of sight in his cell and when jailers responded to his absence.
“It was coming if they didn’t have him on complete lockdown,” Hogan said.
But Guzman was apprehended in January 2016, spending another year in Mexico – a stint marked by more fear about another breakout – before his extradition to the US in January 2017, just a few hours before President Donald Trump took office.
Guzman is now locked up at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. His trial is set to start in September in Brooklyn.