For Mexico’s Marines, An Epic Cartel Bust With Another Tragedy in Mind

They captured ‘El Chapo’ without a shot, following the death of a comrade and the unthinkable subsequent horror visited upon his entire family.

03.01.14 5:00 AM ET

As we clamor to extradite Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman-Loera for blighting entire American cities with untold tons of drugs, we should first offer two words to the Mexican marines who captured him.

“Muchas gracias.”

The marines made the grab with full knowledge of the risks involved not just for them, but for their families.

They had only to think of what happened to their fallen comrade, 30-year-old Ensign Melquisedet Angulo Córdova—and his mother, sister, brother, and aunt just hours after his funeral.

Angulo was killed by a grenade blast when his unit engaged in the second of two major gun battles with cartel leader Arturo Beltran Leyva and his gunmen in 2009. U.S. authorities had developed information regarding Beltran’s location and had originally tipped off the army, which had failed to act due to what an American diplomatic cable later termed “risk aversion.”

Image #: 9551144    Irma Cordova Palma (L) is presented the flag which covered the casket of her son Navy Master Melquisedec Angulo Cordoba, at a cemetery in Villahermosa December 21, 2009. Suspected drug gang hitmen shot dead Cordova Palma, her daughter and son as well as an aunt of her elite Mexican marine son who died after a raid that killed a top drug lord, police said on Tuesday. The shooting came just hours after the funeral of Melquisedet Angulo, who died of wounds suffered during the strike that killed Arturo Beltran Leyva, boss of the cartel. Angulo, who was hit by grenades during the attack, was lauded as a hero, making his family an identifiable target.        REUTERS/Marcelo Lopez  /Landov

Marcelo Lopez/Reuter, via Landov

Irma Cordova Palma (L) is presented the flag which covered the casket of her son Navy Master Melquisedec Angulo Cordoba, at a cemetery in Villahermosa December 21, 2009. S

The U.S. then contacted the Mexican marines, who did not hesitate, engaging Beltran and his gunmen in a 90-minute firefight. Beltran managed to get away, but the U.S. soon after managed to trace him to an apartment complex in Cuernavaca. The marines surrounded it and Beltran was killed during the ensuing battle that also cost Angulo his life.

Angulo was buried with full military honors, ending with a graveyard ceremony at the municipal cemetery in his hometown of Tabasco. Mexico’s secretary of the navy presented Angulo’s mother with the flag that had covered his coffin, solemnly thanking her for her sacrifice.

“Having done his duty to the last moment of his life serving his country, his people, and honoring his family,” the secretary said of her son.

The mother spoke to reporters afterward.

“Thinking as a mother, I used to feel very sad and hurt for the families of soldiers and police who had been killed. It would make me cry,” she said. “And now, now it is my turn.”

The extent of that sacrifice only became clear that night, when more than a dozen gunmen armed with assault rifles kicked in the front door of the Angulo home. They murdered his mother, Irma Córdova Palma, and his sister, Yolidabey, as they slept. His brother, Benito, and aunt, Josefa Angulo Flores, died despite the efforts of paramedics to save them.

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As if that were not enough, a hand-lettered cartel sign, or narcomanta, went up outside a nursery school threatening further reprisals.

But the killers only made the marines more determined. A U.S. diplomatic cable noted that the Mexican marines had received extensive training from their U.S. counterparts. Their courage and resolve were all their own.

“A key player in the counternarcotics fight,” the cable said. ”[The Marines’] success puts the army in the difficult position of explaining why it has been reluctant to act on good intelligence and conduct operations against high-level targets.”

The marines had made several other major arrests when the U.S. again tipped them off to a cartel leader hiding out in an apartment complex last Saturday. They were no doubt ready to do battle again as they swooped in.

But El Chapo surrendered without firing a shot. The world saw him with his head forcibly bowed by a figure in fatigues wearing a bullet-resistant vest stenciled with what Mexican marines have made a word of honor.