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Captured: Joaqin "El Chapo" Guzmán, Mexico's No 1 drug lord

For 13 years the world's powerful drug lord had evaded capture becoming an almost mythical figure, a ghost reputedly transformed by plastic surgery who roamed the impenetrable mountains of Mexico where he was protected by corrupt politicians and an omerta among the masses.

As his cartel flooded America with cannabis, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, and his henchmen left the headless bodies of rivals by the roadsides, Joaqin "El Chapo" Guzmán always seemed to be one step ahead of the law.

The entire Mexican Army, and thousands of US drug enforcement agents, searched fruitlessly for the man known as "Mexico's Osama bin Laden" and the bounty on his head rose to $7 million.

At dawn on Saturday their quest finally appeared to have come to and end as a man believed to be the drug kingpin was taken alive, without a shot being fired, at the Miramar Hotel in Mazatlán, a popular tourist destination on the Pacific coast where the beaches are lined with resort accommodation.

The suspect, who was with an unidentified woman, was held by Mexican Marines acting on intelligence from the DEA. He was immediately transferred to Mexico City where DNA and dental records were being used to confirm his identity.

Local television broadcast a photograph of a man it said was detained in the operation. He was shirtless and had a small black moustache, and bore a resemblance to the last known image of Guzmán.

The arrest was confirmed by US government officials. However, in Mexico City presidential spokesman Eduardo Sanchez was more cautious, saying authorities had "captured an individual" whose identity had not yet been confirmed.

A US security official said: "We've been actively tracking him for five weeks. Because of that pressure he fled in the last couple of days to Mazatlan. He had a small contingent with him."

His arrest is a major success for President Enrique Pena Nieto and follows the capture of Miguel Angel Trevino, head of the ultra-violent Zetas cartel, in July.

Guzmán, 56, whose nickname means "Shorty" and refers to his 5ft 6ins stature, heads the Sinaloa cartel, named after the northwestern state of the same name.

He has a fortune estimated at more than $1 billion by Forbes magazine, which has listed him at number 67 among the "World's Most Powerful People", above the presidents of France and Venezuela.

The tentacles of his cartel extend across North, Central, and South America and to Europe and Australia.

One former US official said: "There's no drug trafficking organisation in Mexico with the scope, the savvy, the operational ability, expertise and knowledge of the Sinaloa cartel. You've kind of lined yourself up the New York Yankees of the drug trafficking world."

Guzmán's life story has become folklore in Mexico. Born into poverty in the small town of Badiraguato in Sinaloa he initially survived by selling oranges.

As a young man his bloody ascent to power began with the Guadalajara cartel in the 1980s. After the leader was arrested in 1989 the boyish-looking Guzmán took over operations in Sinaloa, ruthlessly rising through the ranks, using local politicians to help control trafficking routes, and building sophisticated drug tunnels into the US through Arizona.

In 1993 gunmen from a rival cartel tried to assassinate him in a car park at Guadalajara airport but mistakenly targeted the vehicle of a Roman Catholic Cardinal, Juan Jesus Posadas Ocampo, who was shot and killed in a crime that outraged Mexico. Days later Guzmán was captured in Guatemala, returned, and jailed for 20 years.

But in 2001 he escaped from Puente Grande prison in Guadalajara by being smuggled out in a laundry basket, an operation which was alleged to have involved two dozen guards.

The escape elevated Guzmán to near mythical status among Mexico's drug barons and his infamy surpassed even that of Colombia's Pablo Escobar, who had been killed in 1993 following a decade long reign of terror.

Omar Meza, a well-known singer from Sinaloa, said: "A lot of people here see Guzmán as a success story because he is a poor guy who has been able to beat the system and become richer than you could ever imagine. They refer to him as a valiente (a brave one)."

Guzmán went on to break a non-aggression pact reached by the top Mexican cartels, seizing control of smuggling routes and leading to bloodbaths in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, which became known as the murder capital of the world.

Mexico's biggest cannabis seizure, 134 tons of the drug, and a giant underground methamphetamine production facility were linked to the Sinaloa cartel.

But as rivals from groups including the Arellano Felix and Beltran Leyva cartels were arrested during a government war on drugs Guzmán only grew stronger.

The brutality of the drug war saw his henchmen carrying out bloody crimes, most recently as they fought their with major rival, the Zetas, with mutilated bodies dumped in the streets. In a shopping centre in the holiday resort of Acapulco the beheaded bodies of 14 men were found with notes from the killers signed "El Chapo's People".

Guzmán sent squads of assassins with names such as "The Black Ones" and "The Ghosts" to wipe out rivals. They once left a note with some corpses reading: "Don't forget that I am your real daddy. El Chapo".

As he flooded US cities with drugs his drug smuggling innovations included once putting seven tons of cocaine in cans of chili peppers.

In Chicago he was named as "Public Enemy Number One" and officials said his influence had been more malign than Al Capone. Last year the Chicago Crime Commission said Guzman "easily surpassed the carnage and social destruction that was caused by Capone".

Nearly 80,000 people have been killed in the drug violence since former President Felipe Calderon deployed thousands of soldiers in 2006.

The bounty on Guzmán's head ultimately rose to $7 million but he evaded Mexican authorities and thousands of agents from the US and other countries who were assigned to capturing him and breaking up the Sinaloa cartel.

In Sinaloa he used his wealth to buy the silence of local people, cultivating what has been described as a "Robin Hood" outlaw image which discouraged people from turning him in as he hid in the "Golden Triangle," a mountainous, cannabis-growing region.

In a local song called "The ballad of a short man" Guzmán's flight from the law was celebrated. It went: "He escaped from hell. And crossed himself in church.

Sleeping sometimes in homes. Sometimes in tents. Radios and rifles. At the foot of the bed."

But for years there had been speculation that the net was closing on Guzmán. His arrest followed the capture of several top Sinaloa operatives in the last few months. in December one of his lieutenants was killed when Mexican helicopter gunships fired at his mansion.

There had also been a series of close misses by security forces. In 2007 Guzmán held a public wedding to his new 18-year-old beauty queen wife that was said to have been attended by corrupt local police and officials. Mexican federal police arrived at the location the next day but Guzmán was gone.

In 2011 his young wife, Emma Coronel, a US citizen, went to Los Angeles and gave birth to twins. The following year Guzman's pregnant daughter was arrested in San Diego after also going to the US to give birth.

The following year Guzmán was believed to have been staying in a million dollar beach side mansion in Los Cabos, a favourite holiday destination for Hollywood stars and wealthy American tourists, shortly before police got there.

A day earlier US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been at a meeting with foreign ministers in the same resort.

In 2012, Colombian police seized 116 properties worth $15 million they said were bought for Guzmán, Before his arrest he was rumoured to have been moving frequently between up to 15 locations, including in Argentina and Guatemala, with a personal bodyguard that sometimes rose to 300 men.

[Source: By Nick Allen, in Los Angeles and Hannah Strange, The Telegraph, London, 22Feb14]

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