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Friday, October 28, 2016

By Tim Johnson, McClatchy Foreign Staff

CULIACAN, Mexico — Walk into the command center of Culiacan’s municipal police department, and you see a huge bank of monitors showing closed-circuit images of street corners, captured by 190 or so all-seeing cameras that rotate and zoom.

Yet in this city of a million or so inhabitants, home turf of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the recently captured crime boss of the Sinaloa Cartel, the cameras and the 1,460 or so transit and street cops seem to miss a lot.

Despite multiple sightings of Guzman and other cartel bosses, police never could spot him. Some residents deem it willful blindness, a sign that lines blur easily among organized crime, police and politicians.

Guzman was captured when naval commandos deployed from faraway Mexico City descended with hot intelligence that the fugitive drug baron was moving from safe house to safe house within the city. As commandos gave chase, they discovered a municipal Dodge Charger police cruiser in a garage at one of his homes.

The Culiacan secretary for public security, Hector Raul Benitez Verdugo, said in an interview that the blue patrol car was a fake. Its call numbers, 19-21, didn’t match any in the city police fleet, he said.

Guzman and bodyguards later fled through a series of tunnels and drainage canals, leaving behind grenades and part of a municipal police uniform.

The commandos finally snared Guzman at dawn on Feb. 22 in an oceanfront condominium in Mazatlan, a two-hour drive from this city.

A local lawyer said it was no surprise that bosses in the Sinaloa Cartel would either co-opt city police or use fake police units to protect themselves.

“It’s a way to camouflage yourself,” said Jesus Cerda Lugo. “If you see a police cruiser, it’s very difficult to know if it’s real or fake. After all, you don’t know all the police in the city.”

If an officer in uniform gives you orders, “and he has a badge, you imagine that he’s real,” Cerda said.

Guzman’s capture has brought new attention to the municipal police forces in Cualican and Mazatlan.

Sunday night, the newspaper El Noroeste in Mazatlan received two telephoned threats minutes after a reporter called police to follow up on a story in a national newspaper, Reforma, that said city police had been protecting Guzman.

“Look, (moron), tell that (jerk) … that we don’t want him talking about the municipal police because we are going to (mess) him up, and you, too, if you (mess) with the police,” the newspaper said a journalist was told. The language was stronger than the revised quotation here.

The facade of El Noroeste was hit with 17 rounds of automatic weapons fire in late 2010, and a headless body was dumped outside the newspaper in July 2011, so such threats are taken seriously.

Mazatlan serves as the playground for the Sinaloa Cartel, while Culiacan, the inland capital, surrounded by fertile agricultural land, is ground zero for bosses under Guzman’s command.

Even if the U.S. Treasury Department listed Guzman as “the world’s No. 1 crime lord,” he didn’t seem to feel the need to stay hidden in Sinaloa’s Sierra Madre range. He regularly came down into the city.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Guzman had lunched earlier this month at the Mar & Sea restaurant on the leafy banks of the Humaya River, not far from central Culiacan. A former state governor owns the restaurant.