(CNN) — Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the legendary and elusive chief of one of the world’s most powerful drug trafficking operations, was arrested overnight in Mexico, a U.S. official told CNN on Saturday.
The official said Guzman, accompanied by a female, was captured in a joint operation with Mexican marines and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration authorities at a hotel in the beach resort of Mazatlan. The operation had been in the works for four or five weeks, the official said.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, via Twitter, recognized the work of Mexican security forces in capturing Guzman.
Phil Jordan, who spent three decades with the DEA and headed the agency’s El Paso Intelligence Center, said the arrest represents a huge blow to the Sinaloa cartel.
“It is a significant arrest, provided he gets extradited immediately to the United States,” Jordan told CNN. “If he does not get extradited, then he will be allowed to escape within a period of time.
“When you arrest the most powerful man in the Americas and in Mexico, if you talk to any cartel member, they’ll say that he’s more powerful than Mexican President Peña Nieto. This would be a significant blow to the overall operations not only in the Americas, but Chapo Guzman had expanded to Europe. He was all over the place. If he is, in fact, incarcerated, until he gets extradited to the United States, it will be business as usual.”
In Washington, a senior administration official described the arrest as “huge” and said it was “a Mexican-led operation, but one with very strong U.S. government support.”
“This has been a long time coming, and hopefully puts a rest to the nonsense that this Mexican government isn’t focusing on security and that the U.S. and Mexico aren’t working well together,” the official told CNN. “They are, and we do.”
In Chicago, where the city’s crime commission last year named Guzman its Public Enemy No. 1 — a designation originally crafted for Al Capone — authorities praised the arrest. Chicago is among the major destinations of the cartel’s drug flow.
“The arrest of Chapo Guzman is significant,” police Superintendent Garry McCarthy said in a statement. “This is a victory, but we know the tentacles of his cartel still exist and much more work remains to be done. Demand for narcotics will still remain, so we will continue to partner with the DEA as they fight international drug trade, and we will remain focused on our efforts to eliminate the factors that drive violence in our city.”
In Mexico, the diminutive Guzman became a larger-than-life figure as he eluded authorities while expanding a drug empire that spanned the world. His life story became the topic of best-selling books and the subject of adoring songs known as narcocorridos.
In the United States, he is wanted on multiple federal drug trafficking charges.
His nickname, which means “Shorty,” matches his 5-foot-6-inch frame.
Guzman, 56, escaped from a high-security Mexican prison in 2001, reportedly hiding in a laundry basket. Throughout the years, he avoided being caught because of his enormous power to bribe corrupt local, state and federal Mexican officials.
“When you arrest Chapo Guzman you’re arresting the leader of all the cartels,” Jordan said. “This guy had a hand in everything, and he owned every politician.”
Guzman has been included in Forbes’ World’s Most Powerful People list since 2009. Forbes estimated his fortune at more than $1 billion.
Guzman has been named in multiple federal drug trafficking indictments in the United States and has been on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s most-wanted list. His drug enterprise stretches throughout North America and reaches as far away as Europe and Australia.
The Sinaloa cartel has been blamed for its role in the bloody drug war that has plagued Mexico in recent years.
Guzman’s arrest caught Jordan and other observers by surprise.
“There is no way that I would have bet that they would have ever arrested him under this administration unless he double-crossed somebody or didn’t make the full payments on bribes,” Jordan said, citing Guzman’s alleged ties to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. “Something went wrong.”