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By Alfredo Corchado, The Dallas Morning News

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — The operation that led to the capture of Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman was an unusual joint effort carried out by Mexican and U.S. law enforcement officials who were down to the wire in a manhunt for the world’s most-wanted drug capo, according to a top U.S. law enforcement official.

Guzman, head of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, and an associate were captured at 6:40 a.m. Saturday in a modest yellow-and-white beachfront hotel in the Pacific Coast resort city of Mazatlan in Mexico. No shots were fired.

The weeks-long operation that led to his capture involved agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security Department, as well as U.S. marshals.

The top U.S. law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Americans were given less than a month to work closely and on the ground with the Mexican navy to capture the longtime fugitive, whose empire stretched from the streets in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, throughout North America and to Europe, West Africa, Asia and Australia.

“The Mexican government gave us a set time, and we were right down to the wire in fact, down to the last day,” said the U.S. official. “This couldn’t have been more dramatic, but the arrest was a credit to our long working relationship with Mexican marines, who led the operation.”

In Mexico City, President Enrique Pena Nieto confirmed the capture via his Twitter account, and Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam lauded the work of Mexican authorities, particularly marine commandos. He credited U.S. intelligence for assisting but did not elaborate.

Asked whether U.S. law enforcement officials had assisted on the ground in Mazatlan, a Mexican official said only, “This was a Mexican operation.”

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, whose Department of Justice had placed a $5 million bounty on Guzman’s head, called the capture a “landmark achievement, and a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States.” He said the U.S. government “salutes the government of Mexico, and the professionalism and courage of the Mexican authorities, for this arrest.”

Guzman’s arrest, which captivated Mexicans in Ciudad Juarez and throughout the country, was likened to the killing of Osama bin Laden. “El Chapo Captured!” screamed the headline of an afternoon newspaper in Ciudad Juarez.

The capture is seen as a major boost for Pena Nieto, who has been criticized for focusing more on the economy than security concerns. It should also lay to rest, for now, questions about his willingness to cooperate with U.S. authorities, an issue that has dogged his administration during the 14 months of his presidency.

The arrest is considered bigger than the capture last July of Miguel Angel Trevino, known as “40,” the leader of the Zetas paramilitary group, the organization known for its brutality and for its campaign of kidnapping and extortion along the Texas-Mexico border.

“Chapo’s arrest is a major coup, probably more symbolic than substantive. The trafficking networks will recompose themselves, but the symbolic impact of getting Osama bin Guzman is enormous,” said John Bailey, a longtime Mexico observer at Georgetown University and author of Politics of Crime in Mexico: Democratic Governance in a Security Trap. “It shows that the U.S.-Mexico cooperation is effective and continuing under Pena Nieto.”

In the weeks-long operation led by Mexican marines, several top leaders of the Sinaloa cartel were captured in their home base of Culiacan, Sinaloa. One of the arrests took place in the home of Guzman’s former wife.

Murillo Karam said Saturday that Guzman escaped capture by two minutes when marine commandos were delayed by steel reinforcement that allowed him to escape through one of several tunnels at a location in Culiacan. Guzman then fled by car to Mazatlan.

The U.S. official said authorities had received “solid information” that Guzman and another top Sinaloa leader, Ismael “Mayo” Zambada, had held a recent meeting in Culiacan and that the authorities had also come “very close to capturing Mayo.”

“We were going after both of them,” the official said, adding that the authorities had learned of a rift between the two men.

U.S. authorities cautioned that the arrest of Guzman does not put an end to the Sinaloa cartel. Guzman was more of a figurehead than the dominant leader, they said.

The real power now lies with Zambada, whose key bodyguards were among those arrested last week. One official suggested that Zambada and Juan Jose Esparragoza Moreno, known as “El Azul,” would find a “way to keep the organization going, but in a more quiet, less violent way.”

“This is a big, huge hit, but not the end of the Sinaloa cartel,” the official said.

The Sinaloa cartel, also known as the Federation, is considered the godfather of Mexican drug cartels, going back to the days of Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the architect of the organization and the man who groomed Guzman from a young age, beginning in the 1980s.

The Sinaloa cartel grew into the wealthiest and most powerful cartel, one whose riches have corrupted generations of Mexican politicians and compromised its justice system.

The organization has smuggled billions of dollars’ worth of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine into the United States and has waged brutal wars with other Mexican gangs over turf and drug-trafficking routes, particularly in Ciudad Juarez, which connects to major markets in Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles and beyond.

More than 11,000 people have been killed in recent years in Ciudad Juarez alone, the result of a war waged between Guzman’s loyalists and allies-turned-rivals in the Juarez cartel.

In recent months, the violence has fallen dramatically, but fears rose Saturday that the power vacuum left by Guzman’s capture would spark renewed bloodshed as Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, seeks to reassert control.

More than 100,000 people have been killed or disappeared in cartel violence since 2006, when then-President Felipe Calderon confronted the cartels.

“A big blow,” Calderon tweeted Saturday, congratulating his successor.

A U.S. investigator and expert on the Sinaloa cartel said: “Long-term, this is a big victory for Pena Nieto, and it will help build credibility for his administration and hopefully security and prosperity for the country. In the short term, you can expect much uncertainty.”

The U.S. law enforcement official concurred.

“Chapo has a grip on every key plaza in Mexico, the United States and Europe,” the official said. “There will be a domino effect.”

AFP Photo/Ronaldo Schemidt

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