By Josh Meyer, Jon Schuppe, Mark Potter and Elisha Fieldstadt
Infamous Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who humiliated authorities when he tunneled out of a maximum-security prison in July, was recaptured early Friday in a deadly raid by Mexico's navy.
Guzman is being transported back to Altiplano — the same maximum-security prison where he escaped on July 11 using an elaborate tunnel that was dug under his shower stall, Attorney General Arely Gomez Gonzalez said at a news conference late Friday.
“Mission accomplished,” Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto said on Twitter Friday. “We have him.”
The drug boss was tracked down partly because he planned to make a biographical movie about his escape and his people had been in contact with actors and producers, which led officials to his safe house, Gonzalez said.
The Mexican Navy carried out the operation, according to leading Mexican newspaper El Universal. The navy, seen as less corruptible than the country’s police forces and army, has taken the lead in fighting the cartels.
The navy said in a statement that marines, acting on a tip, stormed into a home in the town of Los Mochis before dawn. They were fired on from inside the building. Five suspects were killed and six others arrested, according to the statement.
Michael Braun, the former DEA chief of operations, confirmed the details of the arrest to NBC News.
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"It’s huge. I mean, he’s the number one drug-trafficking figure in history and he’s been probably the world’s biggest criminal fugitive,” a senior DEA official said. “And so it’s a huge win for the rule of law. No one is above it, and it’s great for the government of Mexico and the U.S., and the world.”
Guzman faces charges in numerous jurisdictions across the United States. While the Justice Department doesn’t comment on extradition requests, a senior official said: “I can confirm that it is the practice of the United States to seek extradition whenever defendants subject to US charges are apprehended in another country.”
Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel and a master of underground tunnels, set off a furious manhunt on July 11 when he casually slipped into a hole in his shower at Altiplano prison near Mexico City and fled through a mile-long tunnel outfitted with a motorbike that led to a residential construction site.
The Hollywood-style escape was a huge embarrassment for Mexican officials — in particular because Guzman and his organization were known for building tunnels under the U.S.-Mexico border. Guzman had escaped from prison once before, in 2001, purportedly hidden in a laundry cart.
Nieto on Friday thanked the agencies that he said conducted “months of careful and detailed intelligence work” and worked “for days and nights tirelessly to accomplish the mission that I have asked them to do.”
“Our institutions have shown once again that the citizens can trust these institutions,” Peña Nieto said. “Our institutions are good enough. They have the determination.”
“Mexico is very proud,” Peña Nieto said. “We’re going to continue to fight organized crime.”
Since the Altiplano escape, 23 prison officials and employees have been arrested, and several of Guzman’s Sinaloa underlings have been rounded up. The getaway damaged relations between Mexican and American anti-drug authorities, who had warned that Guzman's associates would try to break him out of Altiplano.
After fleeing the prison, Guzman traveled by land to the city of Queretaro, where officials say he caught a small plane to a mountainous region of Sinaloa, his home state and stronghold, Attorney General Arely Gomez has said. A second plane also took off in an apparent attempt to throw off pursuers.
The escape was organized by a member of Guzman's legal team who had access to Altiplano and was able to keep his boss updated on the plan's progress, authorities have said.
A Guzman brother-in-law is also believed to have supervised construction of the tunnel. A third conspirator allegedly negotiated the purchase of the plot of land where the tunnel emerged.
Marines nearly captured Guzman in October after U.S. drug agents intercepted cell phone signals that led them to a ranch in the Sierra Madre Mountains in western Mexico, sources told NBC News at the time. But the government forces were turned back by heavy gunfire, and Guzman was able to flee. Officials believe he was injured in that near-miss.
A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration statement said El Chapo’s capture was “a victory for the rule of law and the Mexican people and government.”
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch commended the Mexican government for the arrest. “Guzman’s latest attempt to escape has failed, and he will now have to answer for his alleged crimes, which have resulted in significant violence, suffering and corruption on multiple continents,” she said in a statement.
Guzman, believed to be about 60, has long been a popular anti-hero in Sinaloa and across Mexico for dodging death and evading bullets while turning the multibillion-dollar Sinaloa cartel into the world's most powerful — and ruthless — drug trafficking organization.
His exploits are chronicled in folk songs. Young people in his impoverished home state rally in support of him, despite his being responsible for the murders of thousands of Mexicans, including police officers and innocent civilians.
Guzman was caught a few days later, an arrest that was hailed as a major victory in the international war on drugs. He ended up in Altiplano, where he began planning the July escape.
Josh Meyer is a reporter with the NBC News Investigative Unit. Meyer is an award-winning national security journalist and author and the McCormick Lecturer in National Security Studies in the the Medill School of Journalism’s Washington program. He was a reporter for 20 years at the Los Angeles Times and is the coauthor of “The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of The Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.”
Jon Schuppe writes about crime, justice and related matters for NBC News.
Mark Potter is an NBC News correspondent based in Miami where he reports for NBC Nightly News With Lester Holt, TODAY, MSNBC and NBCNews.com. He joined NBC News as a staff correspondent in 2004.
During his more than 40-year journalism career, Potter has reported from all over the United States, South America, Central America and the Caribbean, including Haiti, Cuba and Mexico. He has also worked in NBC's London and Hong Kong Bureaus, and has reported from China, the South Pacific, the Philippines and Israel. Much of his career was spent with investigative units at both the national and regional levels, and he has reported on topics including politics, narcotics, immigrant smuggling, environmental issues, natural disasters, international conflicts and numerous high-profile court cases.
Among the stories he has covered are the Cuban Mariel boatlift, the Grenada invasion, the arrest and trial of Panama's General Manuel Noriega, the Mexican and Colombian drug wars, the Haitian immigration crisis, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Hezbollah-Israeli war, the 1980's Miami riots and cocaine crisis, the Theodore Bundy murder trial, the Oklahoma City and Atlanta Centennial Park bombing investigations, the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the Everglades Valujet crash, scores of hurricanes, the Armero volcano disaster in Colombia, the Central American conflicts, the Elian Gonzalez legal battle, several Papal trips, the right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo, the Gianni Versace murder, the U.S. heroin epidemic, the Southwest border-security debate, the U.S.-Cuban political opening and the dramatic prison-tunnel escape of Mexican kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
For 15 years, prior to working at NBC News, Potter was a correspondent for ABC News, reporting for World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, Nightline and Good Morning America. He also worked for CNN, where among other duties he served as contributing correspondent for the Emmy-Award winning magazine show, CNN and Time.
Potter is the recipient of the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Award, a Robert F. Kennedy Award, an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, National Headliner Awards, the 2011 national Emmy Award for "Mexico: The War Next Door," a 2015 Emmy Award for "Hooked: America's Heroin Epidemic," numerous Emmy nominations, and six regional Emmy Awards. He also received a 2015 National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence Award.
Potter has often appeared as a guest lecturer in journalism classes at the University of Miami, the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas. His work is also featured in "Square Grouper," a 2011 documentary film about South Florida marijuana smugglers, and in “Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded,” a 2014 documentary about drug-related violence in Miami and Colombia.
Potter was graduated from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and then worked for three local television stations in Evansville, Ind., and Miami before joining network news in 1983.
Elisha Fieldstadt is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.
The Associated Press and F. Brinley Bruton contributed.