AP reports today that Mexican federal police nearly nabbed drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman in a coastal mansion in Los Cabos three weeks ago, barely a day after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with dozens of other foreign ministers in the same southern Baja peninsula resort town.
The wire agency says: “Jose Cuitlahuac Salinas, Mexico’s assistant attorney general in charge of organized crime investigations, confirmed on Sunday that there was a near miss in late February in the government’s efforts to arrest the man who has become one of the world’s top fugitives since he escaped prison in a laundry truck in 2001.
Here is my version on the background on the recent hunt for El Chapo.
Last autumn, President Felipe Calderón was confident in an interview with the New York Times when asked about the hunt for one of the world’s most wanted men, the elusive Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán.
“The Mexican Army probably a couple of times has been in the place where hours before Chapo was. But sooner or later he will fall,” Calderón said.
That confidence is beginning to look well placed. Since the interview, Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s most powerful transnational crime organization, has suffered a series of reversals at the hands of the Mexican military and special federal forces.
The latest came in a shoot-out on January 20th in the northern state of Durango between an army special-forces unit that left dead a high-ranking aide to Guzmán and led to the capture of 11 Sinaloa cartel members.
The fatal shooting of Luis Alberto Cabrera Sarabia, nicknamed “The Architect”, emphasizes how the hunt for Mexico’s top drug-dealer is turning in the favor of the Mexican authorities, say government officials.
Luis Alberto Cabrera Sarabia had only just replaced his brother, Felipe, as head of the cartel’s operations in Durango and sections of neighboring Chihuahua state, according to Army spokesman Gen. Ricardo Trevilla.
Felipe, nicknamed “The Engineer”, was arrested in December and was considered one of Chapo’s security chiefs and most trusted lieutenants. Mexican security sources suggested then that the snaring of Felipe – he was seized in Culiacán, capital of Sinaloa state—represented a grave blow to Guzmán that could hasten the drug chief’s own capture.
The death of The Architect comes then as a grave double blow. Like his brother Felipe, Luis Alberto Cabrera Sarabia was “one of El Chapo’s main associates,” Gen. Trevilla told a press conference in Mexico City.
Only a few months ago the Mexican authorities were being accused of favoring the Sinaloa cartel by going lightly on it compared to rival transnational crime organizations. In response to that claim, infuriated government officials insisted they weren’t and that the Sinaloa cartel is a much tougher nut crack than some of its smaller criminal competitors such as La Familia, a Pacific coast cartel that imploded and fractured last year under intense law-enforcement pressure.
The Ministry of National Defense said in a statement that the death of The Architect is likely to affect significantly the operations and structure of the Sinaloa cartel in the so-called Golden Triangle, the northern states of Durango, Sinaloa and Chihuahua, the key area of production of Mexican opium and marijuana.
Guzmán, who was born in 1957 in La Tuna, Sinaloa, has eluded authorities since escaping from the Puente Grande maximum-security prison in the western state of Jalisco in 2001 in a laundry truck. He had been arrested in Guatemala in 1993.
Forbes magazine ranks Guzmán as one of the world’s richest men and estimates that he’s worth more than $1bn. He has a $7m bounty on his head.
The Architect’s arrest in many ways is testimony to the effectiveness – and potential—of a strategy launched in October by the then Interior Secretary José Francisco Blake Mora shortly before he died in a helicopter accident.
Named Operation Laguna Segura, the strategy is designed to combat organized crime in the northern Mexican region, specifically in the states of Coahuila and Durango. It involves unprecedented operational cooperation between municipal, state and federal police and the military.
Observers say Operation Laguna Segura has had the benefit of the full backing of the governors of Coahuila and Durango, Jorge Torres López and Jorge Herrera Caldera, who were invited to participate in the planning of the strategy.
In the press conference announcing the fatal shooting, and in a statement issued later by the PGR, officials highlighted the important role Operation Laguna played in both the December arrest of The Engineer and the subsequent killing of his brother.
The PGR statement said the “specialized work” of Operation Laguna cast detailed light on “the criminal activities carried out by Cabrera Sarabia mainly in the mountains of Durango.” The statement continued: “The information obtained revealed that this individual was hiding in a building located in the municipality of Canatlán from where he directed criminal activities.”
And it was in Canatlán that the showdown took place. According to Justice Ministry officials, “special attention was given to the location of The Engineer’s replacement.”
Operation Laguna personnel discovered on January 19th that The Architect was holed up in a farm called “La Cañada del Chile” located approximately 60 kilometers north of the city of Durango.
During the night, mobile air units attached to Operation Laguna established a perimeter around the farm while ground forces moved in. According to the PGR statement, the traffickers hiding in the farm opened fire wounding initially three soldiers and allowing The Architect and a subordinate to flee and hide in a nearby cave. Clashes persisted, another solider was wounded and in the firefight The Architect was killed.
The Laguna area in northern Mexico for which Operation Laguna was named for has in the past few years become a crime hotspot between the competing Sinaloa and Zeta cartels. According to the interior ministry, 473 murders were reported in the area in 2009. In 2010, the number rose to 799, and in 2011, there were 804 killings. Both Cabrera brothers were significant players in the Sinaloa cartel’s attacks on Los Zetas.
A feud within the Sinaloa cartel between a faction led by the Cabrera brothers and a group known as M-10 headed by former ally Mario Nuñez Meza has helped Operation Laguna secure intelligence, say government officials.
Felipe Cabrera’s inclusion in “El Chapo’s” inner circle apparently prompted resentment and triggered a rupture with Nuñez, says Trevilla.
Mexican officials said that another high-ranking member of the Sinaloa cartel, Fidel Mancinas Franco, was arrested in the northern state of Sonora in January. Mancinas had been extorting money from immigrants seeking to travel to the United States, they said. Mancinas is wanted in the U.S. in connection with the deaths of nearly a dozen migrants during a car accident in Texas in 2009.
Operation Laguna has been instrumental in the capture of 24 leading members of either Los Zetas or the Sinaloa cartel. While army spokesmen decline to comment on the details of the hunt for El Chapo, there is clearly rising confidence that the drug baron’s days could be numbered.”