El Chapo and the Fog of the Drug War

How did the Mexican government track down El Chapo? Details about his capture continue to emerge.

Photo: Mexico's Attorney General's Office

THE FOOTAGE IS unquestionably dramatic: Members of Mexico’s most elite security forces clear a four-bedroom house in a predawn raid. Over the course of 15 chaotic minutes, the Mexican marines can be seen moving room to room through the smoky building. Gunfire thunders. The walls are pocked with bullet holes. The commandos toss grenades. A marine goes down. “They got me,” he screams. The marines detain an unidentified individual with flex cuffs and find two women hiding in a bathroom. Garbage and high-powered rifles litter the floor.

The narrative that follows the gunfight is every bit as fast-paced. When the smoke cleared, four people were under arrest, with five more reported dead. Photos of their bloody bodies appeared online the next day. Two others escaped, however — one of them a stocky, bearded man named Ivan Gastelum, the alleged assassin-in-chief for the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s most powerful and sophisticated drug-trafficking organization. Gastelum, who goes by the nickname “El Cholo Ivan,” was accompanied in flight by his boss, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, the world’s most infamous drug trafficker and Mexico’s most wanted man.

According to a video of the raid obtained by Mexico’s Televisa network, which published the footage Monday accompanied by interviews with marines who took part in the operation, Gastelum and Guzmán relied on a familiar trick to elude the well-armed men bearing down on them: They dropped into a tunnel, the same tactic Guzmán had famously used six months earlier when he escaped from Mexico’s top maximum security prison, the second early exit from incarceration of his storied criminal career. This time around, Guzmán’s route to freedom was apparently hidden behind a closet mirror. It reportedly took an hour and a half for the marines to locate the lever, hidden in a ceiling fan, which allowed them to access the tunnel. According to some media accounts, the marines entered the passage carrying torches.

Gastelum and Guzmán used their head start to escape through the sewer system of Los Mochis, a coastal city in Guzmán’s home state of Sinaloa. Upon emerging, the men stole a vehicle, which ran out of gas. So they stole another. The driver of the second vehicle called in the theft, authorities said, permitting security forces to capture the pair alive. They were taken to what The Guardian described as “a sex motel,” complete with a “laminated menu of sex toys, condoms and lubricants,” before being handed over to the military. Speaking to Televisa, the head of the Mexican special operations unit, the same man said to have captured El Chapo in 2014, said he told the drug boss, “Your six-month vacation is over,” to which Guzmán replied, “Yes, my holiday is over.”

And so ended Operation Black Swan. Of course, how much of that story is true remains to be seen. Initial accounts of high-stakes military raids, particularly those with profound political implications, are notoriously prone to inaccuracies and often take years to sort out, regardless of the country in question. The raid that killed Osama bin Laden is but one prominent example. In Mexico, where it is not uncommon for journalists covering drug-related violence to be killed on the job, or for the government to obfuscate facts, the truth can be especially difficult to pin down.

Arturo Fontes, a former FBI investigator who spent nearly 30 years working drug cases in Mexico, much of that time focused on the hunt for Guzmán, applauded the drug lord’s arrest. At the same time, however, he suggested that broader political motivations, particularly the current record low value of the Mexican peso, might have played a role in triggering the raid. “I believe that Chapo could have been arrested about two months, or six months ago,” Fontes told The Intercept.

When Mexican authorities commit themselves to making arrests, Fontes argued, they often succeed. The problem, he said, is one of will and corruption. “They have the people, they have good police officers, a good military,” he said. “It’s corruption [that] gets the best of it.” That corruption, which Guzmán no doubt has intimate knowledge of, is likely making a number of Mexican politicians, businesspeople, and law enforcement and military officials uneasy now that he is in custody, Fontes added.

Joaquin Guzman, the world's most wanted-drug trafficker, blue shirt, is escorted by Mexican security forces into a helicopter at a Navy hangar in Mexico City, Mexico, on Friday, Jan. 8, 2016. Guzman, known as El Chapo, was recaptured by Mexican authorities on Friday, six months after he escaped from a maximum-security prison, slipping into an elaborate tunnel under his shower and humiliating the government that had promised tougher public order. Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera is escorted by Mexican security forces into a helicopter at a navy hangar in Mexico City, Mexico, on Friday, Jan. 8, 2016.

Photo: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Some have already begun calling the official account of Guzmán’s arrest last weekend into question. The novelist Don Winslow, who has written two heavily researched, fictionalized accounts of the drug war in Mexico based largely on Guzmán’s real-life rise to power, has repeatedly slammed the official narrative on Twitter, pointing to a Reuters report that found “no signs of bullet holes” on the exterior of the building where Guzmán’s men died. Noting edits in the raid footage and the fact that none of Guzmán’s men were shot on camera, Winslow also tweeted, “Dear President Nieto … Please release the UNEDITED video of the El Chapo ‘raid’ to the American media.”

The extent to which Mexican security forces received help on the ground during last week’s events remains unclear. While there is little question that U.S. intelligence aided in the run-up to the operation, the official line out of Mexico City has credited Mexican security forces with the capture. Yet Reuters, citing a senior Mexican police source and a U.S. source, reported that U.S. marshals and DEA agents were “involved” in Guzmán’s capture.

Such cooperation is commonplace. The Wall Street Journal has reported that U.S. marshals have made a practice of dressing as Mexican marines and joining in armed drug raids in recent years. The Mexican investigative newsmagazine Proceso, in a story sourced to two American officials in Washington, D.C., reported that El Chapo was last apprehended by American members of the Marshals Service, the DEA, and an unnamed U.S. intelligence agency wearing the uniforms of Mexican marines.

On Monday, SOFREP, a news website run by U.S. special operations veterans that covers secretive missions around the world, added a new wrinkle to the evolving account of Guzmán’s capture, reporting that members of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force were also on the scene during the mission. Attributed to multiple anonymous sources, the article reported that the U.S. marshals played an “important role in tracking down the drug lord” and that Delta commandos, part of the U.S. military’s super-secretive Joint Special Operations Command, “served as tactical advisors but did not directly participate in the operation,” adding that “law enforcement agencies are said to regard the presence of a JSOC operator as a sort of lucky talisman.”

An assist from the U.S. military’s most elite fighters in taking down a major Latin American drug trafficker would not be unprecedented. In his book Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command, journalist Sean Naylor delves into the role U.S. special operations forces, including members of Delta Force and SEAL Team 6, played in tracking down Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar nearly two-and-a-half decades ago. Naylor explains how the mission, which was technically supposed to be limited to training elite Colombian security forces but led to Escobar’s death on December 2, 1993, capitalized on communications surveillance and laid the groundwork for the so-called high-value targeting missions that would come to define JSOC’s role in a post-9/11 world.

Fontes said he did not believe U.S. elements were directly involved in Guzmán’s most recent capture. “Not on this one,” he said. “There’s been a lot of information sharing on telephone numbers, on key people,” Fontes said. “Whether the information was not shared this time, it’s been shared in the past.”

Carl Pike, a former assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s special operations division, who retired in December 2014 after Guzmán’s second arrest, said he had no information on U.S. personnel actively participating in Guzmán’s most recent apprehension. Typically, he explained, “When it gets down to the nut-cutting itself, the actual act, it’s all GOM [government of Mexico].”

The U.S. government’s national security apparatus has enjoyed unprecedented access to Mexican counternarcotics efforts since the administration of Felipe Calderón. Pike acknowledged that the relationship has continued under Peña Nieto, though longstanding concerns over the encroachment of the Americans in Mexican affairs have not disappeared. “I’m amazed sometimes at the stereotypical view of Mexico,” Pike said, pointing out that memories of U.S. military incursions into Mexico continue to color perceptions of American operations on Mexican soil to this day, sometimes resulting in a reluctance on the part of Mexican officials to be perceived as bowing to the whims of the United States. What’s more, Pike added, the U.S.-trained Mexican marine forces responsible for Guzmán’s last two arrests are, in their own right, “a very, very highly advanced, highly trained military group.”

THE EMERGING DETAILS of the operations that led to Guzmán’s capture add to a highly cinematic and surreal story, and at the heart of the weirdness is the role of Sean Penn and his 10,000-word article for Rolling Stone.

Faced with mounting evidence that his meeting may have helped lead authorities to Guzmán, Penn has defended his interview, telling the AP by email, “I’ve got nothin’ to hide.” Rolling Stone, for its part, has insisted that it maintained the highest levels of security in reporting and publishing the interview. The magazine’s founder, Jann Wenner, said in an interview with the New York Times that for much of the reporting process he and Penn kept the story between them, avoided discussing it on the phone, and kept emails pertaining to the project on “a separate protected part of our server.”

(For more on the failures of operational security that plagued Penn’s encounter, see this piece by The Intercept’s Andrew Fishman.)

The former federal investigators who spoke to The Intercept largely downplayed the role of the Penn narrative. “It doesn’t surprise me,” Fontes said, that Mexican authorities used Penn and the Mexican actor Kate del Castillo to locate Guzmán. “They had other ways to catch him, not just this, but it did help,” he said. Fontes suggested that for El Chapo, there was perhaps more at stake than simply making a movie, including a potential “infatuation” with Castillo. “When I’ve worked him over the years,” Fontes said, “a young woman and famous actresses like her … that was his weakness.”

Gone largely unnoticed in media discussions of the Rolling Stone article has been any recognition of the cost paid by Mexican citizens living in the area where Guzmán was apparently hiding at the time of his meeting with Penn. If the statements from Mexican officials are true, Penn’s interview may have triggered a string of heavy-handed military operations that drove hundreds of Mexican ranchers from their homes.

After his October 2 meeting with Guzmán, Penn returned to Los Angeles. “What I didn’t know,” he wrote, “was that from the time the weather cleared, a military siege on Sinaloa was imminent.” The day after Penn left, the Mexican military began sweeping through the mountains in hopes capturing or killing El Chapo. The raids following Penn’s visit appear to have peaked on October 6, though English-language media did not report on their scope until October 17, when NBC News, citing “three sources with knowledge of the operation,” reported that “Mexican marines zeroed in on the Sinaloa cartel kingpin after U.S. drug agents intercepted cellphone signals suggesting ‘El Chapo’ was hiding at a ranch near Cosala in the rugged Sierra Madre mountains in western Mexico.” NBC reported that Guzmán narrowly escaped the operation and in the process suffered injuries to his face and leg. Guzmán confirmed the raids in a message to Kate del Castillo, but said reports of his injuries had been exaggerated.

Proceso followed up on the NBC report in its October 18 issue, publishing its own front-page feature examining the failed operation and the intelligence that led to it. According to an unnamed “American intelligence agent,” information regarding U.S. communications intercepts pointing to Guzmán’s presence in Durango, near the border with Sinaloa, was shared with Mexican authorities. The source added that the mission was delayed by “several hours” because the area where Guzmán was holed up was difficult to access.

While details on the intelligence that led up to the early October operations have been limited, Penn himself acknowledged that he was likely subject to intense U.S. and Mexican surveillance. In describing his October 2 arrival in the country, Penn wrote, “There is no question in my mind but that the DEA and the Mexican government are tracking our movements.” In Penn’s account, English-language reports describing the Mexican military raids that followed his visit were watered down. “By the time news agencies broadcast the story in the United States,” he wrote, “the mayhem throughout Sinaloa in those days had been essentially reduced to a nearly successful raid that had surgically targeted only Chapo and his men, and claimed he had been injured in flight with face and leg wounds.”

March 7, 2012 - Culiacan, Sinaloa, Mexico - A man with hands bound behind his back and killed execution style on the banks of a river. Culiacan is the cradle of many of the drug cartels and their leaders in Mexico. (Credit Image: © Louie Palu/zReportage/ZUMA)

A man, his hands bound behind his back, killed execution style along the banks of a river in Culiacán, Sinaloa, Mexico, March 7, 2012.

Photo: Louie Palu/zReportage/Zumapress.com

In fact, the stories describing the scenes on the ground in Durango were detailed and vivid. On October 18, the AFP published an interview with Ayon Mendoza, a 24-year-old housewife in Durango whose home was riddled with bullets allegedly fired by Mexican military helicopters on the hunt for Guzmán. According to the report, Mendoza, her husband, and their 3-year-old daughter were just a handful of the more than 600 people displaced by the Mexican military operations. Speaking to the AFP, Francisca Quintero Sánchez said military helicopters unleashed a “rain of bullets” on her home as well. Hiding under her bed with her three children, she described the attack as “a time of terror.”

In December, reporters from Vice News traveled to Sinaloa and met ranchers who remained displaced from their homes. Several claimed that their properties had been ransacked after they were forced to flee. Responding to the allegations, a spokesperson for the Mexican navy dismissed claims that the military fired on civilian homes and stressed that the military would only open fire if fired upon. “In every operation carried out by naval personnel, in every moment and in every situation, human rights are strictly protected in any circumstance, as established by Mexico’s constitution,” the navy said in a statement following the initial October reports.

Pike, the former DEA agent, argued that statements from Mexican officials claiming that an anonymous phone tip from a vigilant citizen led to Guzmán’s capture were evidence that the military’s pressure on Sinaloa and surrounding areas had paid off.

“For a long time, Sinaloa, as far as law enforcement was concerned and the military was concerned, was no man’s land,” he said. “Nobody even went in there because you went into the cartel firefights up there.”

In recent months, he said, the Mexican marines appeared to have adopted a new mindset that “if we’re going to flush the rabbit out of the briar patch we’re gonna have to get into the briar patch.” The continued presence of the Mexican marines, the use of checkpoints, roadblocks, and random searches, Pike said, forced the population to choose between protecting a drug lord and their own personal freedom. “They just squeezed Sinaloa to the point that Chapo popped out.”

THE DRAMA SURROUNDING Guzmán’s capture is unlikely to let up anytime soon. For veterans of the drug war, the re-arrest of a man believed to be responsible for a significant portion of the estimated 160,000 people killed in Mexico over the last decade is cause for celebration.

Any belief that Guzmán’s arrest will make a substantive difference in the flow of drugs to the United States, however, is a different matter. As Guzmán told Rolling Stone, “The day I don’t exist, it’s not going to decrease in any way at all.”

“He’s absolutely right,” Pike said. “Him being arrested is not really going to impact the drug trade whatsoever. It’s a big machine and it’s just gonna happen.” Will there be fallout within the Sinaloa cartel and other criminal organizations? “Yeah, sure. There will be,” Pike said. “But is it going to stop it? No. Not at all.”

Pike expressed relief that El Chapo was captured alive. “What it actually goes to show is, the rule of law works,” he said. Without “slamming any other part of the government,” he added, “you can obviously fly a drone and drop a Hellfire missile on somebody, but rule of law works when you get out, work hard, and arrest somebody and bring them to a court of law.”

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