Drug lord Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman is escorted by Mexican marines in Mexico City on February 22. Photo: Reuters
Mexico City: Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, the world's most wanted drugs lord, fought his way up from a ramshackle mountain village to become the Mexican government's most powerful adversary in a war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Guzman, who was captured early on Saturday in his native north-western state of Sinaloa after a months-long operation, dominated drug smuggling across the border into the United States after escaping from a high-security prison in 2001.
His criminal empire earned him a $5 million price on his head in the United States, and a place on the Forbes list of billionaires.
El Chapo: Guzman is accused of masterminding a trade in drugs worth billions of dollars and a regime of bloody violence across the cities of Mexico's border with the United States. Photo: AP
But in towns and villages across Mexico he was better known for his squads of assassins who committed thousands of murders and kidnappings. Many victims were tortured.
Guzman's Sinaloa cartel smuggled billions of US dollars' worth of cocaine, marijuana and crystal meth across Mexico's 3200-kilometre border with the US. Indictments allege his narcotics were sold from the Pacific coast all the way to New England.
His nickname "El Chapo" means "Shorty" and the 1.7-metre gangster's exploits made him a legend in many impoverished communities of northern Mexico, where he has been immortalised in dozens of ballads and low-budget movies
Guzman after his capture in Guatemala in 1993. He escaped from jail in 2001. Photo: AP
"A lot of people here see Guzman 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," said Omar Meza, a singer from the town of Badiraguato, in the heart of the drug lord's territory. "They refer to him as a valiente (a brave one)."
Guzman, 56, has managed to outmanoeuvre, outfight and outbribe his rivals to stay at the top of the bloody Mexican drug trade for over a decade.
Mexican Attorney-General Jesus Murillo Karam said that security forces had nearly caught Guzman a few days earlier, but he gave them the slip.
"The doors of the house . . . were reinforced with steel and so in the minutes it took us to open them, it allowed for an escape through tunnels," Mr Murillo Karam said.
But they tracked him down again and waited for the right moment to strike early on Saturday.
That Guzman was captured in the seaside resort of Mazatlan without a shot being fired remains one of the biggest questions about his arrest.
The son of Guzman's partner, Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, was arrested in November in Arizona when he tried to meet government officials to talk about his wife's immigration status. Last month, Mexican Marines raided the house of Grisela Perez Lopez, an ex-wife of the mob boss. That operation netted Jesus Pena Gonzalez, a deputy known as "El 20" and others, the newspaper Reforma reported.
"During El Chapo's imprisonment [between 1993 and 2001], El Mayo helped keep the Sinaloa cartel together," said George Grayson, a drug war expert at the College of William and Mary who has written several books about Mexican cartels. "He will step into Chapo's boots."
Zambada's son, Vicente, is facing a federal grand jury indictment in Chicago. It's not clear if information gleaned from the younger Zambada, who claims that he was working as a US Drug Enforcement Administration informant at the time of his 2009 arrest in Mexico City, was used to track down Guzman.
Guzman was born in La Tuna, a village in the Sierra Madre mountains in Sinaloa state where smugglers have been growing opium and marijuana since the early 20th century.
He rose up in the 1980s under the tutelage of Sinaloan kingpin Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, who pioneered cocaine smuggling routes into the United States.
When assassins shot dead cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas in 1993 they claimed they had been gunning for Guzman but got the wrong target.
Two weeks later, Guatemalan police arrested Guzman and extradited him to Mexico, where he was locked in a top-security prison.
"He wouldn't cooperate with us at all. He kept claiming he was just a farmer. But that's what they all say," said Mike Vigil, who spent 13 years in Mexico for the US Drug Enforcement Administration..
Eventually, he bribed guards to help him escape and returned to the streets to rebuild his cartel into one of the biggest trafficking empires in history.
Guzman expanded his turf by sending in squads of assassins with names such as "Los Negros" ("The Black Ones") and "The Ghosts" to take business away from rival cartels turning cities on the US-Mexico border such as Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo into some of the world's most dangerous places.
In one attack in Nuevo Laredo, 14 bodies were left mutilated on the street under a note signed "Shorty" that read: "Don't forget that I am your real daddy."
Guzman's Sinaloa cartel often clashed with the Zetas, a gang founded by former Mexican soldiers that created paramilitary death squads.
The Sinaloans fought fire with fire, arming their troops with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns.
Guzman also turned on his own. He waged one of his bloodiest campaigns against childhood friend and longtime business partner Arturo Beltran Leyva, alias "The Beard".
In 2008, hitmen hired by Beltran Leyva murdered Guzman's son Edgar, a 22-year-old university student, outside a shopping mall in the Sinaloan state capital Culiacan.
Guzman reportedly left 50,000 flowers at his son's grave and then returned to war. When Beltran Leyva was finally shot dead by Mexican marines in 2009, a head was dumped on his grave.
Mexican prosecutors say Guzman used his wealth to buy off politicians, police chiefs, soldiers and judges.
Agents say he hid near his childhood home in the Sierra Madre mountains but rumours abounded of him visiting expensive restaurants and paying for all the other diners, although he also took away their mobile phones to prevent anyone calling the police.
In 2007, Guzman married an 18-year-old beauty queen in a village in Durango state in an ostentatious ceremony.
The archbishop of Durango subsequently caused a media storm when he said that "everyone, except the authorities" knew Guzman was living in the state. Guzman's bride gave birth to twins in a Los Angeles hospital in 2011.
"[Guzman] is a legend," said security analyst Jorge Chabat in Mexico City. "He is the jewel of the crown."
Reuters, Washington Post