On Feb 13, 2014, four Blackhawk helicopters took off from a Mexican Marine base in Baja California, heading east over the Sea of Cortez. The 40 troops on board were on a secret mission. Their target: Ismael "Mayo" Zambada, a leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel.
Supported by another 50 troops on the ground in pickup trucks, the Marines converged on a ranch outside of Culiacan where Mayo had been living. For nearly a month, working w/the DEA, the troops had studying the trafficker, collecting intel of his "pattern of life."
It was a new sort of operation, according to Victor Vasquez, DEA liaison to the Marines. The Mexican federal police had been cut out this time. "The corruption level in using them again was not going to work," Vasquez said yesterday at the trial of Mayo's partner, Chapo Guzman.
In the end the raid failed. Mayo wasn't at the ranch. But days later--2/16/2014--a similar op was launched against Chapo. Troops descended on a house in Culiacan looking for him. However, the slippery kingpin managed to escape, fleeing thru a tunnel hidden underneath a bathtub.
While much is known about that escape, it is less known that with Chapo that day was one of his mistresses, Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez Lopez, a former lawmaker from Chapo's home state of Sinaloa.
Was she the one who pressed the button behind the bathroom mirror that activated that opened the bathtub hatch that led to wooden stairs that fed into the tunnel? We may find out in today's session of the trial.
Chapo was eventually apprehended by Mexican forces in Mazatlan on 2/22/2014, six days after fleeing w/Lucero through the tunnel. We are likely to hear much more about his escape, his capture and the strange narco love story of Lucero & Chapo when testimony starts again at 930...
Should be a pretty good day.
Before dawn on 2/22/2014, a small team of Mexican marines raided the Hotel Miramar, a block off the beach in Mazatlan. They were in hot pursuit of the drug lord El Chapo who had evaded them days earlier in Culiacan after escaping thru tunnel under the bathtub of his safe house.
The 24 troops had taken large precautions entering Mazatlan, traveling in unmarked cars and trading in their uniforms for flip-flops and board shorts purchased from a WalMart.
From a secret wiretap on Chapo's team, they were listening in on the cartel's communications, which were relayed to them from Nogales, AZ. virtually in real time. Now, they were ready to strike. After setting a perimeter, the troops went into the hotel.
Standing outside was Victor Vasquez, a DEA agent embedded w/the troops who described the op at the morning session of Chapo's trial. Eventually, Vasquez said, a message came across the radio: "7-7-7! Confirmado, Vic!"
Vasquez was astonished.
"I knew they had got him," he said.
So ended a 6-day hunt for the drug lord which Vasquez described in mind-blowing detail. It started on 2/16/2014, when the Marines tracked down Chapo's personal lackey, The Nose, who led them on an all-night tour of Chapo's safehouses in Culiacan connected by a network of tunnels.
Though Vasquez & the Marines found many things at the safehouses that night--RPGs, Chapo's monogrammed and diamond-handled pistol, a few crates of plastic bananas filled w/cocaine--they didn't find the kingpin. He'd escape-until that is the troops found him again at the hotel.
After Vasquez got the radio run--"7-7-7, Confirmado!--he ran down into the hotel's basement parking garage.
And there, he said, was Chapo--on his knees surrounded by Marines.
With him was his wife, Emma Coronel Aispuro, and their two twin daughters.
As Vasquez approached him, he said he was thinking, "Holy shit, it is him."
He looked at Chapo kneeling below him.
"It's you," he said. "It's you."
Spoiler: Chapo was jailed and escaped from custody (for the second time) the following year.
We've just learned more about the Title III wiretap operation on Chapo's communications that enabled the Hotel Miramar raid. It was run by Homeland Security Investigations out of Nogales and targeted 77 Blackberries used by cartel operatives.
The cartel used a sophisticated comms method called the "mirror system." Field operatives would send BB chats to one of about 10 "office" devices. Those devices would cut/paste the chats and forward to 2nd tier devices. Those would cut/paste again to 1st tier devices at the top.
Messages flowed in the same way down from top devices back thru intermediaries to the field operatives. The HSI team in Nogales was able to collect more 1 million of these messages from 2/2013 to 8/2014.
Victor Vazquez & the Marines were able to use intel from the wiretap like this:
When they detained The Nose, Victor asked him where Chapo was. The Nose first said he was @ a safehouse code named #3. But Vazquez had a BB chat showing Chapo had been taken to a house coded #5.
The cartel operatives referred at times to Chapo as "birria," a kind of goat stew.
Vazquez told The Nose he knew "birria" wasn't at #3. It showed just how much US agents knew about Chapo. The Nose, sighing, agreed to help Vazquez find his boss.
Several secrets about the raid and capture in Mazatlan remain despite today's testimony.
When the defense asked Vazquez on cross if any Americans aside from him were present, the judge sustained the govt's objection. Same w/when the defense asked if the raid had used drones.
The defense also asked Vazquez if it was his hand in the photo below. He denied it. Also denied being in the hotel room when Chapo was arrested. These questions led to more govt objections. There is great sensitivity in Mexico about US law enforcement being too involved in raids.
After lunch there will be a brief hearing in court that will likely address the issue of how much more can be revealed about the raids, especially on these issues.
Chapo's lover, Lucero Guadalupe Sanchez, has taken the stand. It's a true narco romance. She loved him, drugs for him, has now betrayed him. But her feelings remain.
"Until today," she said, "I'm still confused because I thought in our relationship we were romantically involved."
The affair began in Feb 2011 when Lucero was 21 and Chapo in his early 50s. Both were from Sinaloa, Mexico. (Lucero later would go on to become a state lawmaker from the area.)
The courtroom dynamic was...awkward.
Lucero tried hard not to look at Chapo. She has a facial tic that seemed exacerbated by her nerves. Chapo did not make eye contact w/her either. Chapo's wife, Emma Coronel, was in the room too, playing with her hair and staring forward.
Lucero said she went to work buying pot for Chapo in Mexico's Golden Triangle in Oct 2011. She arranged deals, met with pilots, purchased directly from growers.
For this, she was not paid.
Chapo had bugged her phone w/spyware (as he did to Emma and other mistresses) and now the US govt has those texts. They're a bizarre mix of love and drug dealing.
"Well it very well packed, love?" Chapo writes Lucero in Jan 2012 about a pot shipment. "How many are in each package?"
Lucero answers: "10 kilos, love."
Lucero tells him at one point that she's stamped the pot w/a Heart & 4 brand.
"The heart means that I love you," she writes, "and the 4 means I bless the day you came into this world."
(Chapo's birthday is 4/4.)
Back after the break...
This is awful.
The judge just extended break for another five minutes because Lucero started crying on the witness stand before the jury was brought in. She looks truly broken up. Emma meanwhile was sitting the gallery smiling.
This is literally a federal court tele-novela.
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