Four months after his brazen escape from a maximum-security prison in central Mexico, Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán may have been wounded while escaping a manhunt that has intensified in recent days.
Mexican security forces, with assistance from US drug officials, tracked mobile phone signals that indicated Guzmán was at a ranch near the town of Cosalá, in the mountains of Sinaloa state, according to NBC News.
Mexican marines mounted a raid on the property, but they were forced to turn back when their helicopters reportedly came under fire from what are believed to be Guzmán’s henchmen.
The marines later entered the ranch on foot, NBC reports, where they discovered mobile phones and medicine, as well as clothes believed to belong to the drug boss.
Authorities believe the kingpin and his associates fled on ATVs, according to NBC.
Despite searching a nearly two-mile radius, security forces were unable to track down Guzmán, according to TeleSur.
However, in his haste to escape the raid, Guzmán reportedly sustained injuries. “To avoid capture,” a statement from Mexican security agencies said, “the fugitive made a hasty escape, which, according to information, caused him injuries in one leg and in the face.”
The Mexican government stressed that the injuries were not the result of contact with state authorities, saying, “It’s important to clarify that these injuries were not a product of a direct clash.”
In recent days, the manhunt for the world’s most wanted fugitive has intensified, with authorities focusing on a mountainous region of northwest Mexico called the Golden Triangle, an areas where the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua, and Durango converge.
Mario Lopez, the Sinaloa state governor, confirmed that Mexican military forces were carrying out operations in the region, extending from the town of Jesus Maria in the west to Sinaloa’s eastern boundaries with Chihuahua and Durango.
“Military personnel from Mexico City are working in the zone,” said Lopez. “You all know who they’re after.”
The break that allowed Mexican authorities to zero in on what they believe is the drug lord’s hideout was an intercept of Guzmán’s phone by US drug-enforcement officials, the Mirror has reported.
A ‘radical shift’
Phone intercepts appear to be playing an important role in Mexican (and American) efforts to track down Guzmán.
In testimony before the Mexican Senate last week, attorney general Arely Gómez said that intercepted phone calls had allowed the government to apprehend the pilot who supposedly transported Guzmán out of Queretaro state, not far from the supposedly high-security prison from which he escaped.
At the time, according to columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio, the Senators in attendance did not press Gómez on the revelation. But as Riva Palacio writes, the information “exposed a radical shift in the investigation,” which until then had appeared to only be focused on the prison itself.
This information has reportedly allowed Mexican authorities map the drug kingpin’s inner circle — a method that Popeye Vasquez, the top hit man for infamous drug baron Pablo Escobar, said investigators would likely use in their hunt for “El Chapo.”
Popeye, however, believed it would take 16 to 18 months to pin down Guzmán.
Guzmán’s Sinaloa safety net
There’s still reason to believe the wily Sinaloa chief will once again avoid capture.
The Sinaloa network is extensive. And its leader receives support from the public.
When Guzmán was arrested in February 2014, Sinaloans poured into the streets to back him. And when his jailbreak was reported in July, many in the state offered their praise for the cartel boss.
“El Chapo” might have been trying to curry political favour at the national level, too: Last year, a former DEA official alleged that Guzmán helped finance the campaign of current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
This support network may allow Guzmán to slip away the authorities who claim to have come so close to capturing him.
“He controls the whole region and the communities protect him as well,” Julio “El Tio” Martinez, who works with one of Guzmán’s operators, told TeleSur.
In their aggressive pursuit of Guzmán, Mexican officials may drive more Sinaloans into allegiance with the cartel.
The military operations have affected more than a dozen communities in the area, and reported crossfire has displaced hundreds of residents, many of them from Cosala, a city north of Culiacan. According to the LA Times, government forces have fired indiscriminately at homes and civilians in the area.
The Sinaloa boss has experience avoiding government manhunts. Guzmán broke out of Mexican prison in 2001, and afterward the government had multiple near misses when trying recapturing him.
According to Mexican journalist Alejandro Hope, during the 12 months after Guzmán’s 2001 escape, the government almost caught him three times. After that, however, they lost track of him for three years.
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