Inside Mexico’s Failed El Chapo Raid

The Mexican navy opened fire with helicopter gunships on civilian homes in a mountain village, sending 700 families running for cover.

The goings-on in the mountains and forests that blanket the Pacific Northwest of Mexico can often be as impenetrable as the terrain itself. Back in the 1970s, anti-drug agents demarcated an area of the Sierra Madre Occidental as the Golden Triangle, after the heroin-producing region of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos in Southeast Asia.

Like a separate republic within the republic, the Golden Triangle of Mexico was forged on generations of poverty, suspicion of strangers, and official neglect. Chroniclers of the drug trade in this area of Mexico have long observed the visual contrast between the cattle trails and dirt tracks of poor ranchers, and the armored SUVs and satellite dishes of the armed men with two-way radios. 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.

Many of the most celebrated crime bosses in Mexican drug lore of the past half-century have emerged from the families of growers and traders native to the area. Foremost among them is Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, Mexico’s richest drug-trafficker and, once again, its most wanted fugitive. Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, escaped from a Mexican maximum-security prison in July, a mere 17 months after he was finally captured after 13 years on the lam.

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 morning after the shooting, Marbella and several of her neighbors were congregated at a single house when about 10 marines approached on foot, pointing their weapons at them, and treating them roughly. They spoke with the marines, who told them only that they were looking for “a person accompanied by many people.” The marines told the villagers the helicopters had taken ground fire and fired back in self-defense. The villagers said they saw no indication the helicopters had been fired upon from the ground.

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. She walked by night, toting her 2-year-old daughter for four days through the mountains. The mayor of Cosalá, Samuel Lizárraga, said many of the villagers who arrived fleeing the violence are children.

Villagers who fled the violence on October 6 returned six days later to retrieve their personal belongings, escorted by municipal police from Cosalá. They say they will go into voluntary exile in Cosalá, saying they fear the violence in Tamazula will worsen.

Ayon Mendoza, 24, spoke to reporters while waiting in line for clothes and food handouts in Cosala. She said she had been preparing lunch in her kitchen in the tiny mountain village of Comedero Colorado when the roof of her house was sprayed with bullets from two naval gunships. Like the others, she fled on foot to Cosalá. “We were walking in the dark because where there was light, they would start shooting. It was firing from all sides,” she said.

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.

The Mexican government waited 10 days after the marine assault on Tamazula to acknowledge the operation or confirm that Guzmán was its target. By then, NBC News had already reported that Guzmán injured his face and leg while making his getaway on an all-terrain vehicle.

In its official statement released last Friday, the Mexican government confirmed the gist of the NBC News report: that the marines turned back their helicopters after taking fire from the ground, and arrived on foot to the ranch where Guzmán was believed to have been hiding, where they discovered cellphones, medication, and two-way radios.

While keeping details of the raid to a minimum, the government emphasized that Guzmán’s injury was not “due to a direct clash” with authorities. The speculation is that Guzmán broke his leg and hurt his face in a fall, though the government has yet to provide evidence that Guzmán was in the area, or that he was hurt in the escape.

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The marines remain active on the ground in the area. NBC News, citing unnamed sources, said the marines had set up an encirclement around a two-mile radius in an attempt to trap the fugitive, but that after nearly two weeks of waiting they “are losing hope that Guzmán’s capture is imminent.”

Journalists with AFP reached a ranch near the village of El Limón where marines had blocked the approach by placing spikes on the roads. Three marines stopped their vehicles, pointed rifles at them, loudly demanded to know who had sent them there, filmed their faces, and refused to allow them to pass.

“The refusal to let anybody pass adds to the mystery of what exactly happened in the operation to catch Guzmán,” the AFP noted.

AFP’s photos of the abandoned villages were the first taken by reporters in the 13 days since the raid; they showed houses and vehicles riddled with bullet holes, and at least one vehicle incinerated.

United States intelligence agents operating in Mexico have been unusually vocal in taking credit for their part in the ongoing manhunt. One such agent, interviewed by the Mexican magazine Proceso, credited round-the-clock electronic surveillance by the U.S. for pinpointing Guzmán’s location in the mountains. The anonymous agent also told Proceso that the Mexican government allowed several hours to elapse before acting on the tip. “The ranch is in a place that is difficult to access. That was the explanation we were given.”

The area of the Golden Triangle targeted for the raid is one where public officials are suspected of keeping strong ties to Guzman. El Universal, a national newspaper, reports that the mayor of Tamazula, where the marine assault took place, is related to Guzmán through marriage. Mayor Ricardo Ochoa Beltrán’s wife is Erika Coronel Aispuro, reportedly the sister of Emma Coronel Aispuro, who is Guzmán’s current wife. Both Mayor Ochoa and his first lady strenuously denied the relation, saying the matching last names of the two women are only a coincidence.

Further adding to the intrigue, a city councilwoman from Cosalá was the mysterious woman publicly identified by Mexican officials at the time of Guzmán’s escape as having visited him in prison under a false identity three months before the capo’s prison break. Sanchez called the government’s claim a “calumny.”

El Chapo has remained atop Mexico’s list of most wanted drug traffickers for all but 17 months of the preceding 14 years, and counting. He was captured in February 2014, subsequently escaping from a maximum-security prison in July of this year, the second such maximum-security jailbreak of his legendary career.

Official sources in the governments of Mexico and the U.S. say that Guzmán was flown back to his haunts in the Golden Triangle within 24 hours of his escape.