Nabbed drug kingpin used high-tech gadgetry to stay free

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican navy marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. Marco Ugarte, AP

WASHINGTON -- Mexico's most powerful drug cartel leader employed high-tech communications gadgetry and sophisticated counterespionage practices to elude an international manhunt for 13 years, The Associated Press has learned. In the end, however, life on the run unraveled for Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in a decidedly low-tech way.

CBS News correspondent Bob Orr reports that wiretaps and call tracers led authorities Saturday to a cell phone in the resort city of Mazatlan, Mexico.

Agents knew that phone belonged to Guzman's top aide, a communications specialist who always traveled with Guzman, Orr reports. At 5:30 Saturday morning, heavily armed troops broke down a fourth-floor door in a Mazatlan hotel and, without a shot,  captured Guzman in his bed.

Guzman's penchant for technology and his efforts to stay ahead of the law were described to the AP by a senior law enforcement official with direct knowledge of Guzman's years on the run and by a U.S. government official who was briefed on the case. Both spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation by name.

 "He didn't spare any expenses when it came to protecting himself," the law enforcement official said.

Some of the communications equipment Guzman used was not generally available to consumers. The sophistication of the gear and Guzman's diligence deeply impressed investigators who were pursuing him. Among other practices, Guzman employed countersurveillance scanners to detect transmitters hidden in rooms or carried by people with whom he was meeting.

"It was top-notch," the law enforcement official said.

 Because Guzman was so well protected, he managed to attend family events and marry a local beauty queen in a well-attended bash in his home state of Sinaloa, all while keeping his multinational, billion-dollar drug empire thriving.

U.S. and Mexican officials spent years hunting for a weak spot in his network. The U.S. government official said the Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement used traditional wiretaps to zero in on Guzman. At times in the last year, agents were able to intercept BlackBerry messages and other communications.

On Feb. 16, Orr reports, a task force from DEA, ICE and the U.S. Marshals Service tracked a cell phone linked to one of Guzman's top aides to a house in Culiacan, the capital city of Sinaloa. Authorities quickly nabbed one of the cartel's couriers near that location.

 The courier, known as "Nariz," revealed that Guzman frequently used the house and at least four others as hiding places, Orr reports. Two hours later, at 4 a.m. Feb. 17, Mexican marines raided the house and missed Guzman by seconds.

Sources told Orr that Guzman escaped down a tunnel through a trapdoor under a bathtub. He fled through the city's sewers and was driven away by cartel henchmen.

The law enforcement official told the AP Guzman wasn't holed up in the rugged mountains of western Mexico while on the run. With the help of his own trusted security force and the likely assistance of some Mexican authorities, Guzman had moved freely about parts of Mexico and even internationally.

"He moved for the most part with impunity (in Culiacan)," the official said. "He traveled at will. He had private planes. He was a businessman and he would go and meet people to discuss not just the drug trade. He was obviously interested in the money trade, the markets. He was looking at expanding the empire."

By the time of his capture, Guzman's empire stretched from Canada through Latin America, Europe, parts of Asia and Australia. He is believed to have amassed a fortune worth billions.

U.S. and Mexican authorities were close to nabbing Guzman in the past but arrived at resorts or other locations hours or days too late, the law enforcement official said. They were never closer than in recent weeks.

Comments