MEXICO- Elusive Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman- who has been on the run from US and Mexican authorities since escaping prison in 2001- was captured by Mexican Marines in the resort town of Mazatlan on Saturday.
While on the run, Guzman had enough assets to be named to a list of wealthiest billionaires in the world according to Forbes magazine- although he recently dropped off the list. Some quarters of Mexico viewed him as a sort of Robin Hood figure- so much so that the hashtag #FreeElChapo was trending internationally on Twitter within hours of his arrest.
According to Mexico's Secretariat of the Navy, El Chapo's capture was facilitated by the capture or killings of his top lieutenants and their family members starting in 2013. The son of the Sinaloa cartel's #2 man was arrested in Nogales, AZ in November 2013 while the cartel's top enforcer was detained by Dutch border police in January.
Acting on information from wiretaps, Mexican troops and federal police combed through the streets of the Sinaloan capital of Culiacan earlier this month. While El Chapo initially evaded the dragnet, each raid seemingly turned up cartel safehouses containing weapons, drug caches and cellphones. The day before Valentine's Day, police arrested the Sinaloa cartel's new top enforcer on the highway outside the resort city of Mazatlan. Days later and in two separate arrests, two men who were reportedly part of Guzman's personal security detail were arrested along with hollowed out produce stuffed with cocaine. Between the wiretaps and information gleaned from the arrests of Guzman's inner circle, police and Mexican marines focused in on a beachfront condo in Mazatlan.
Agents learned that Guzman, 56, had started coming down from his isolated mountain hideouts to enjoy the comforts of Culiacan and Mazatlan, said Michael S. Vigil, a former senior DEA official who was briefed on the operation.
"That was a fatal error," Vigil said.
Working on the information gleaned from Guzman's bodyguards, Mexican marines swarmed the house of Guzman's ex-wife but struggled to batter down the steel-reinforced door, according to Mexican authorities and former U.S. law-enforcement officials briefed on the operation.
As the marines forced their way in, Guzman fled through a secret door beneath a bathtub down a corrugated steel ladder into a network of tunnels and sewer canals that connect to six other houses in Culiacan, the officials said.
Guzman fled south to Mazatlan. On his heels, a team of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents set up a base of operations with Mexican marines in the city, according to the current U.S. law-enforcement official.
Early Saturday morning, Guzman's reign came to an end without a shot fired. Marines closed the beachside road in front of the Miramar condominiums, a 10-story, pearl-colored building with white balconies overlooking the Pacific and a small pool in front.
Smashing down the door of an austerely decorated fourth-floor condo, they seized the country's most-wanted man at 6:40 a.m., a few minutes after the sun rose.
The arrest of El Chapo will likely quell US official's concerns that the office of Mexican president Peña Nieto will be reluctant to directly take on the cartels or aid US law enforcement in Mexico's ongoing narcoinsurgeny.
However, the arrest of Joaquin Guzman also raises questions about possible extradition to the United States, a succession battle within the Sinaloa cartel itself or rival organizations such as Los Zetas or the Knights Templar aggressively moving in to seize territory from a now-vulnerable rival organization
COLOMBIA- In what law enforcement is calling a game-changer, police in Colombia seized more than 1000 lbs of an unrefined coca paste from an aircraft that was getting ready to take off in Southern Colombia earlier this month.
Police found the paste in a Cessna airplane at Ipiales airport in Narino province, close to the border with Ecuador. Intelligence shows it was destined for Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, according to the police. Discovering coca paste shipments is rare, says Steven Dudley, a director at InSight Crime, a research group that studies organized crime in Latin America.
“We’ve seen some laboratories in Honduras and there are rumors of them being in other places, Mexico being one of them,” Dudley said by telephone from Washington D.C. “It’s not common, that’s for sure.”
Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel and other Colombian crime gangs imported coca paste from Peru and Bolivia in the 1980s, transforming it into cocaine before exporting it. Mexico could now be traveling down the same road, Restrepo said.
Drug gangs would lose less if a shipment of paste were seized, he said, since its wholesale price is only about a fifth of the value of refined cocaine. A difference in the cost of precursor chemicals such as acetone or the Colombian police’s success in finding and blowing up labs are possible explanations for the change, [Colombian police General Ricardo Restrepo, head of antinarcotics] stated.
In the 1990s, Colombian coca output soared, often in areas where the presence of Marxist guerrillas made it hard for police to enter. The farmers turn the leaves of their coca bushes into paste in jungle shacks, in a bucket chemistry process using gasoline, caustic soda, sulphuric acid, ammonia and cement. They sell the paste to mafia groups for about $1,250 per kilo, Restrepo said, who process it into pure cocaine in laboratories hidden in the jungle.
The country’s largest Marxist rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, currently controls about a quarter of the country’s annual 309 metric tons cocaine output, according to Restrepo.
The government is holding peace talks with the FARC in Havana in a bid to end a five-decade civil conflict. Negotiators have reached partial agreement on agricultural policy and political representation, with discussion now centering on illicit drugs.
As well as the FARC, Colombia’s cocaine trade is controlled by offshoots of illegal paramilitary “self-defense” groups, such as the Urabenos gang, which has its roots in the border zone near Panama, Restrepo said.
A peace deal will make it easier for security forces to enter some coca-producing regions, although it won’t end the cocaine trade, he said.
“Drug trafficking is going to continue, with or without the FARC,” the counter-narcotics chief said. “The business is constantly changing and mutating. As long as it’s economically productive, drug traffickers will be looking for ways to earn more profits with less risk.”
The seizure means that at least one Mexican drug trafficking organization has switched from trafficking to manufacturing cocaine- intelligence indicating that the Sinaloa cartel was the likely recipient. Should other cartels follow suit and begin manufacturing cocaine from coca paste in Mexico's borders, this would change Mexico from a strategically-placed way station for trafficked cocaine to an active producer, even though the raw ingredients originate in the Andean countries of South America.