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U.S. Tracked Drug Lord's Cellphones, Leading to Capture

Image: Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican navy marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City, Mexico, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. A senior U.S. law enforcement official said Saturday, that Guzman, the head of Mexicoís Sinaloa Cartel, was captured alive overnight in the beach resort town of Mazatlan. Guzman faces multiple federal drug trafficking indictments in the U.S. and is on the Drug Enforcement Administrationís most-wanted list. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo) Eduardo Verdugo / AP

American officials who had been tracking the world’s most notorious drug lord were afraid that he had slipped through their grasp one more time.

The DEA, ICE and the U.S. Marshals had been tracking cellphones used by associates of Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, AKA El Chapo, the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel, and by last Monday they had traced him to his ex-wife’s house. Guzman was wanted in six different U.S. courts for allegedly smuggling billions of dollars of cocaine, meth, heroin and marijuana across the border and had a $5 million U.S. pricetag on his head.

But just before Mexican Marines raided the home in Culiacan, Mexico, Guzman slipped through a secret door beneath his bathtub and into the city sewer system. And most of the wiretapped phones went dead.

“At this point the phones went out of service,” said a U.S. law enforcement official. “It’s likely he was tipped.”

One of the phones remained active, however. “It led us to Mazatlan,” said the official.

Early Saturday morning, Mexican Marines arrested Guzman, 59, and several associates at a condo tower in the beach resort town of Mazatlan, 220 kilometers south of Culiacan, ending a 13-year manhunt for the largest importer of drugs to the U.S. – and years of frustration for U.S. law enforcement.

Chapo Guzman had been on the lam since 2001, when he escaped in a laundry cart from a Mexican prison. The hunt for Guzman intensified after 2007, when then-Mexican president Felipe Calderon launched a war against the nation’s drug cartels. Eighty-thousand people have died since 2007 in a multi-front war between the Sinaloa, Gulf and Zetas cartels and the Mexican government.

The U.S. has been supplying information from wiretaps to Mexican officials for many years. But each time they tracked Guzman to a specific location, and told Mexican authorities were to look, their quarry escaped. In 2012, the U.S. pinpointed Guzman’s address in Los Cabos, only to watch as he eluded capture yet again.

“Every time he gets away, they tell us, ‘He got out the back door,’” one American official told reporters at the time. The official said that Americans involved in the manhunt had started to joke that there was “no word in Spanish for surround.”

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But high-tech surveillance soon put them back on Guzman’s tail. As U.S. and Mexican authorities arrested various members of the Sinaloa cartel, which controls drug trafficking throughout much of Western Mexico, they were able to use each defendant’s cell phone to lead them deeper into the cartel hierarchy, and closer to Guzman. By February, said officials, they were tracking four or five cellphones used by close associates.

And by then Guzman had become "complacent," according to former senior DEA official Mike Vigil. "Once you become complacent, you become vulnerable," said Vigil.

Mexican authorities had also uncovered a key piece of evidence. Earlier this month, a Sinaloa courier told them during questioning that Guzman had a series of safe houses in Culiacan with secret steel doors connected to tunnels and to the city sewer system.

With the help of U.S. electronic surveillance, the Marines were able to determine which of the seven houses Guzman was using as a hideout, and raided the house on Monday, Feb. 17.

Guzman made another of his miraculous escapes, but still had one of the bugged phones – a satellite phone. On the day he escaped, Guzman used the phone to summon help.

Guzman and his associates, including his wife, former beauty queen Emma Coronel, and their twin baby daughters, were asleep when Mexican Marines burst into two condos on the fourth and fifth floor of the Miramar development early Saturday morning. No shots were fired.

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U.S. officials said they were impressed by the professionalism of the Mexican Marines, who have conducted many of the recent operations to capture cartel leaders. “I’ve got to tell you,” said one law enforcement agent. “There is a lot of talk about how great the Navy SEALs are, the British commandos. These Marines are under-recognized. They are right up there with the best of them.”

A senior DEA official said the Marines’ attitude marked a change from past experiences with Mexican authorities. “In times past when we almost got him, it was, ‘Let’s go back to regroup,’” he said. “This time there was no going back to regroup. They stayed on the trail. And he was driven out of his briarpatch, and into the open.”

One U.S. official who served for many years in Mexico said that the U.S. aid to the Marines was not just intelligence, but included “boots on the ground,” in the form of U.S. Marshals.

“They are manhunters,” said the official. “They came down, showed the Mexicans their techniques, helped train them, and stayed with them.”

Once Guzman was in custody, the Marines flew him to Mexico City, where he was displayed to the public as proof that after many close calls he’d finally been captured.

Guzman was serving a 20-year sentence for drug trafficking when he escaped from prison in Mexico in 2001. He is also under federal indictment for drug trafficking in San Diego, Brooklyn, N.Y., El Paso, Chicago and Miami. The DEA announced a $5 million reward for his capture in 2005.

On Saturday, Attorney General Eric Holder and DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson congratulated the Mexican government on Guzman’s capture. “The operation led by the Mexican government overnight to capture Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman Loera is a significant victory and milestone in our common interest of combating drug trafficking, violence and illicit activity along our shared border,” said Johnson. “ We congratulate our Mexican partners in this achievement and we will continue to work collaboratively with them to ensure a border region that is safe and secure, for the communities and citizens of both our nations."