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Thursday, December 14, 2017

By Veronica Gomez and Dave Graham

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) — Mexico recaptured the world’s most notorious drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman with U.S. help in a violent standoff on Friday, six months after he humiliated President Enrique Pena Nieto by tunneling out of a maximum security prison.

Guzman, head of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel and who Pena Nieto first caught in February 2014, was captured in an early morning raid that killed five in the city of Los Mochis in the drug baron’s native state of Sinaloa in northwest Mexico.

“Mission accomplished: We have him,” Pena Nieto said on his Twitter account. “I want to inform all Mexicans that Joaquin Guzman Loera has been arrested.”

Scant official details were available of the recapture of Guzman, but it involved Mexican marines, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and U.S. Marshals, a senior Mexican police source said.

The source said Guzman’s capture was part of an operation in Los Mochis announced earlier on Friday by the Mexican Navy in the deadly raid in which five others were captured.

A city block in the northern farming town was blocked off by Mexican marines in pickup trucks, Reuters TV images showed. Manhole covers were open along the leafy street.

Residents were awoken by the sound of gunfire and explosions at 3:30 a.m. (0930 GMT), said a local witness, who declined to be named.

One photograph widely circulated on social media, but that could not be independently verified by Reuters, appeared to show Guzman sitting on a bed in handcuffs, wearing a grimy vest and with a poster of a scantily clad woman on the wall behind him.

Another photo appeared to show Guzman without handcuffs and wearing the same vest in the back of vehicle next to one of his top assassins.

Guzman now faces the prospect of extradition to the United States. After coming under fire for failing to do so the last time, Mexico’s Attorney General’s office said in July it had approved an order to extradite him north of the border.

He staged a jaw-dropping jail break in July, when he escaped through a mile-long tunnel which burrowed right up into his cell, heaping embarrassment on Pena Nieto.

Dozens of people were arrested over the jail break, though details of who Guzman bribed and how his accomplices knew exactly where to tunnel into the prison remain scarce.

Guzman is wanted by U.S. authorities for various criminal charges including cocaine smuggling and money laundering. An official at the attorney general’s office, speaking on condition of anonymity, said his extradition would “take time”.

Once featured in the Forbes list of billionaires, Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel has smuggled billions of dollars worth of heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines into the United States and fought vicious turf wars with other Mexican gangs.

The DEA said in a tweet it was “extremely pleased” at El Chapo’s capture.

‘A SURVIVOR’

Guzman was born in La Tuna, a village in the Sierra Madre mountains in Sinaloa state where smugglers have been growing opium and marijuana since the early 20th century.

He began his ascent to the top of the criminal ladder in the 1980s under the tutelage of Sinaloan kingpin Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, alias “The Boss of Bosses,” who pioneered cocaine smuggling routes into the United States.

Guzman came to prominence in 1993 when assassins who shot dead Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas claimed they had been gunning for El Chapo but got the wrong target.

Two weeks later, police arrested him in Guatemala and extradited him to Mexico. Guzman used money to ease his eight year prison stay, smuggling in lovers, prostitutes and Viagra, according to international and domestic media reports.

The kingpin’s legendary reputation in the Mexican underworld began to grow in 2001, when he staged his first jail break, bribing guards in a prison in western Mexico, before going on to dominate drug trafficking along much of the Rio Grande.

Still, many people in towns and villages across Mexico remember Guzman better for his squads of armed gunmen who carried out thousands of brutal slayings and kidnappings.

After Guzman’s first prison break, violence began to creep up in Mexico and the situation deteriorated during the 2006-2012 rule of Pena Nieto’s predecessor Felipe Calderon, when nearly 70,000 people lost their lives in gang-related mayhem.

Guzman’s reputation grew and in 2013 Chicago dubbed him its first Public Enemy No.1 since Al Capone.

El Chapo, or “Shorty”, is believed to be 58 years old. The 5-foot, 6-inch gangster’s exploits made him a hero to many poor villagers in and around Sinaloa, where he was immortalized in dozens of ballads and low budget movies.

Security experts concede Guzman has been a master of his trade, managing to outmaneuver, outfight or outbribe his rivals to stay at the top of the business for over a decade.

Rising through the ranks of the drug world, Guzman watched his mentors’ tactics, their mistakes and where to forge the alliances that kept him one step ahead of the law for years.

“El Chapo Guzman is a survivor,” Anabel Hernandez, author of Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers, said shortly after his July jailbreak.

(With reporting by Gabriel Stargardter, Christine Murray and Cyntia Barrera; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Simon Gardner and Mary Milliken)

Photo: Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman (C) is escorted by soldiers during a presentation at the Navy’s airstrip in Mexico City February 22, 2014. REUTERS/Henry Romero