On this day in 2014, one of the world’s most-wanted criminals, Joaquin “El Chapo” (“Shorty”) Guzman Loera, head of the Sinaloa cartel, the world’s biggest drug trafficking organization, is arrested in a joint U.S.-Mexican operation in Mazatlán, Mexico, after outrunning law enforcement for more than a decade. Guzman had been the target of an international hunt since 2001, when he escaped from a Mexican prison where he was serving a 20-year sentence. During his years on the lam, Guzman’s elusiveness was celebrated in “narcocorridos,” Mexican ballads glorifying the drug trade, while in such places as Chicago, where his cartel supplied the majority of the narcotics sold in the city, he was declared Public Enemy No. 1.
Born into poverty in the 1950s in the western Mexico state of Sinaloa, Guzman dropped out of school in the third grade. He became involved in the drug trade as a young man, and by the late 1980s had begun to amass power of his own as a trafficker. In 1993, rival drug traffickers tried to murder Guzman at a Mexican airport but instead killed a Roman Catholic cardinal, whom they mistook for Guzman, along with six other people. Soon after, Guzman was arrested in Guatemala then returned to Mexico, where he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years behind bars for drug trafficking, bribery and conspiracy. While locked up in a high-security prison in the Mexican state of Jalisco, Guzman paid off the staff and continued to run his criminal enterprise from behind bars. Then, in January 2001, he escaped the facility; some accounts claim Guzman was wheeled out in a laundry cart, while other sources suggest prison officials simply let him walk out.
In the ensuing years, Guzman hid out in the mountains of Sinaloa and other parts of Mexico and used violence, bribery and a large network of informants to help him remain a fugitive from justice. He would periodically dine out in public, sending his gunmen into a fancy restaurant ahead of him to confiscate the phones of the other patrons, and then returning the devices—and paying for everyone’s meal—after he’d finished eating. All the while, he continued to expand his drug trafficking empire, which grew into the biggest supplier of illegal narcotics in America. The U.S. government offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Guzman’s arrest
The break that ultimately led to Guzman’s capture came on February 20, 2014, when law enforcement agents traced a signal from a BlackBerry belonging to one of Guzman’s bodyguards to the Sinaloa resort city of Mazatlán. The following night, a group of Mexican marines, along with a small assemblage of agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Marshals, gathered in Mazatlán, where they had traced the BlackBerry signal to a condominium building called the Hotel Miramar. In the early hours of February 22, the marines found Guzman’s armed bodyguard protecting the entrance to one of the apartments at the Miramar. Quickly realizing he was outnumbered, the guard surrendered and the marines stormed the apartment. Inside, they found Guzman, his wife and young twin daughters and a personal chef and nanny. The drug lord ran into a bathroom only to give himself up moments later. No shots were fired during his arrest.
At the time Guzman was apprehended, the Sinaloa cartel was believed to be operating in some 50 countries. In the United States, where Guzman has been named in multiple indictments, Attorney General Eric Holder called the drug lord’s capture a “landmark achievement” and said, “The criminal activity Guzman allegedly directed contributed to the death and destruction of millions of lives across the globe through drug addiction, violence and corruption.” Guzman is currently being held in a prison outside Mexico City.