Inside the Bloody Manhunt for El Chapo

After the Mexican government was embarrassed by El Chapo’s escape, its security forces spent six months chasing him down.

01.09.16 3:45 AM ET

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico—Ever since Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the world’s most wanted drug lord, escaped from a Mexican federal prison six months ago, special forces troops attached to the Mexican Navy have pursued the kingpin with a scorched earth policy that forced him out of his stronghold in the high mountains of his native state of Sinaloa.

The heart of Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel, the largest supplier of drugs to the United States, is in the mountains and forests that blanket the Pacific Northwest of Mexico, an area of the Sierra Madre Occidental known to drug-enforcement as the Golden Triangle. The portion of farmers who cultivate illicit cash crops like marijuana or opium-poppy in the Triangle—23,000 square miles spread across the states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua—can exceed 80 percent.

Guzmán’s escape from prison on July 11, 2015, was a major source of embarrassment to the government of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. The drug lord escaped through a mile-long tunnel under his cell in a maximum-security prison. At a press conference Friday night, Mexican Attorney General Arely Gómez announced that El Chapo will be sent back to Altiplano, the prison he escaped from in July. His chief of security will likewise be sent to Altiplano. There has been no word yet on whether he will be extradited to the US.

With a fortune large enough to land him on the Forbes list of billionaires, he presumably could have fled to anywhere in the world. But from the start, the manhunt to recapture him focused on the protective terrain and loyal campesinos of the Golden Triangle. The Daily Mail reported that Marines tracked Guzmán to the Sierra Madre mountains after U.S. drug agents intercepted data from his phone.

The chase for Guzmán was not always smooth. As The Daily Beast reported, on October 6 three naval helicopters were observed hovering low in the sky over the municipality of Tamazula, in the state of Durango. Marta Marbella, 32, watched them from her home in the tiny mountain village of El Verano. Marbella expected the choppers to land, but instead said she had to run for cover as bullets from the helicopters tore through her modest dwelling. “I could see the helicopter stop and shoot directly at the house,” Marbella told AFP. “I was scared, screamed and cried, although I knew it was useless.”

The Mexican Navy later denied that its marines fired on a civilian population. In a joint statement, Mexico’s security forces said the operation was conducted with the utmost respect for human rights.

Marbella was one of as many as 700 inhabitants of villages in the mountains around Tamazula who fled that part of the sierra for the safety of Cosalá, a town 80 miles away in the neighboring state of Sinaloa. Three days later, on October 9, Mexican Marines spotted the Sinaloa cartel chief near Cosalá. In the confusion of the firefight that ensued, Guzmán reportedly fell off a cliff and broke his leg, yet somehow managed to escape.

The Marines pursued Guzmán further into Sinaloa. For months, Navy helicopters were observed flying over the mountains near Badiraguato, the municipality where Guzmán was born and a bastion of his Sinaloa Cartel.

On Nov. 21, three men linked to Guzmán’s cartel were killed in Badiraguato. News reports said only that the killers were part of an “armed commando.” Four more of Guzmán’s men were assassinated soon thereafter while returning from the wake of their three fallen comrades.

Last month, the head of security for Aureliano Guzmán, El Chapo’s brother, was ambushed and assassinated along with seven of his men in the tiny mountain hamlet of San José del Barranco. Again, news reports said only that the ambush was carried out by an “armed commando.” Among the seven killed were men from La Tuna, the village where El Chapo was born.

Following the ambush, the Marines deployed to La Tuna in the expectation that El Chapo would attend the funeral of his fallen henchmen. According to local news reports, the Marines made an additional incursion into the nearby village of Surutato. Ríodoce reports that the naval team commandeered as their base a ranch in the area that reportedly belongs to Aureliano Guzmán. Since mid-December, the Marines have used the base to stage incursions in the heart of the Sinaloa cartel’s empire.

The intensity of the conflict in the erstwhile stronghold of the cartel perhaps explains why, when the Marines finally caught up to El Chapo yesterday, the culminating firefight was not in the high sierra of the Golden Triangle but in Los Mochis, a city a half-hour’s drive from the Gulf of California on the northwestern coast of Mexico.

The recapture of Guzmán was a joint operation between U.S. and Mexican authorities. In a tweet from its official account, the US Drug Enforcement Agency credited “bilateral cooperation” for the successful recapture of the fugitive drug-trafficker. During his previous capture on February 22, 2014, agents from the DEA and U.S. Marshals Service donned the uniforms and balaclavas of Mexican marines and made the arrest themselves, with supervision from an elite group of Mexican Marines.