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Authorities Finally Nab Mexico's No. 1 Drug Kingpin


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene.

The world's number one drug kingpin is in a Mexican jail this morning, captured over the weekend without a single shot being fired.

MONTAGNE: For more than a month, Mexican law enforcement had been closing in on Joaquin Guzman, who's known as El Chapo, which means Shorty. At five foot six, Guzman is leader of the Sinaloa cartel. Mexican marines nabbed him in the Pacific beach resort of Mazatlan with the help of several U.S. agencies.

GREENE: The pursuit of Guzman involved tapped phones, near misses, and a wild chase through water-filled storm drains.

We begin our coverage with NPR's Carrie Kahn, who's in the capital of the drug lord's home state of Sinaloa.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: In the Libertad neighborhood in Culiacan, Sinaloa, a slow tickle of water runs through a wide storm drain running under the city streets.

MARIA: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: This middle-aged woman who would only give her first name, Maria, says the canal system is long - very long - stretching for miles under the streets. Or like behind her small cinder block house, above ground is a wide open canal.

MARIA: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: She offers to show me.

We're walking into her house right now.

MARIA: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Outside the backdoor, past the clothes lines and hen house, we walked to the edge of her property. Trash and about a few inches of water fill the canal. She says everyone knows you can hide in the storm drains or run through them and outfox the police.


KAHN: That's what authorities say Mexico's number one drug trafficker did two weekends ago as federal officials were closing in on him. A series of key arrests of top cartel enforcers, and tips from informants in the past month, led investigators to this working-class neighborhood in the heart of Culiacan.

Maria says it was 4:00 in the morning when she heard the huge helicopters drop out of the sky and hover over her house and the nearby one where Guzman was thought to be hiding.

MARIA: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Everything started to shake and I couldn't figure out what was happening, she says. According to officials, Mexican marines raided seven houses that morning. Each home was found to have a hatch door underneath the bathtub that led to a tunnel running straight to the city storm drains.

As the helicopters hovered, Mexican marines tried to break down the front doors, which were reinforced with steel. In the few minutes they struggled, authorities say Guzman was able to lower himself down the bathroom hatch, make it through the tunnel and take off running through the storm drains and canals. Authorities and local press reports say Guzman outran the federal forces, made it out of Culiacan and all the way to the Pacific Coast resort of Mazatlan.

It was there, according to the Mexican newspaper Reforma, that Guzman made a fatal error. He used his cell phone to call for help. U.S. authorities were able to trace the call. And on Saturday morning, before dawn, marines stormed the fourth floor of an oceanfront condominium complex and captured the country's most wanted fugitive without firing a shot.

Guzman didn't even try to reach for a military assault rifle nearby. In all the raided homes, authorities say they confiscated more than 100 weapons, including two grenade and one rocket launcher.

Jorge Chabat, a security analyst, says that the arrest of Guzman is a huge political boost to the administration of Enrique Pena Nieto, who's been struggling to provide a positive picture of Mexico.

JORGE CHABAT: Especially because the effectiveness of the government, in providing security in the past months, has not been very high.

KAHN: Pena Nieto has been battling The Knights Templar drug organization in the State of Michoacan while also struggling to contain a growing number of civilian militia groups. But despite Guzman's arrest and praise from high U.S. officials, who called the capo's capture a landmark achievement, residents here in Culiacan, Sinaloa's capital, are nervous.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: This man selling churros, fried sweet dough treats, in front of a local church, didn't want to give his name. He says everyone here is scared.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Look, he says, it's always the same. One leader is removed and another takes over. He says we just hope no more blood is spilled while the change of guard takes place.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Culiacan, Sinaloa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.