The Phone Dragnet That Caught the World's Top Drug Lord

It was a series of phone intercepts that finally nabbed Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

Mexican federal police in Ciudad Juarez in 2009. Image: Shutterstock

Last November, US authorities nabbed Serafin Zambada-Ortiz at a border crossing in Nogales, Arizona. It was a big catch: Zambada-Ortiz, son of Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, the top lieutenant to Sinaloa cartel kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. Zambada-Ortiz is considered the heir apparent of the Sinaloa, arguably the world's wealthiest and most powerful crime syndicate.

The contacts on Zambada-Ortiz's phone, which officials seized, would prove critical in pinpointing cartel stash houses strewn across Sinaloa state in mountainous northwest Mexico. Crucially, the episode would breathe new life into the joint US-Mexico dragnet that recently caught Chapo, who'd been at large for 13 years after famously escaping from Mexican prison in a laundry basket.

Zambada-Ortiz's capture and the data scraped from his phone led to more and more Sinaloa phones until a month ago, when Mexican authorities (moving on American intelligence work) successfully carried out a number of raids that scored a cache of weapons and the arrests of a few of Chapo's senior henchmen. With each apprehension came another phone full of leads, "a new trove of information for officials to mine," as TIME reported. Then, sometime last week, Mexican commandos "traced a number stored in a seized cell phone to a stash house outside the provincial capital of Culiacan, where they believed Guzman was hiding," TIME added

The emphasis was on intercepts. Ever since Zambada-Ortiz's arrest, investigators utilized a suite of wiretap programs to track the movements of Chapo and his inner circle. The Drug Enforcement Administration operated four of these wiretaps; the other was helmed by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Chapo and his confidantes could feel the heat—reportedly well aware that their mobile communications had been compromised, they ditched certain phones. This meant that in the immediate days leading up to Guzman's arrest in the resort town of Mazatlan, where a sprawling network of escape tunnels failed him, the ICE wiretap was the lone program "still producing activity", US law enforcement officials told CNN.  

Nevertheless, it appears they got their guy. Per TIME

Intercepted wiretaps, information gleaned from a deep network of confidential informants, and the arrests of several senior cartel figures—who subsequently surrendered satellite phones crammed with contacts—all played a role in the endgame, according to U.S. officials and experts on the cartel.

In Mexico City, word of Chapo's arrest was met with cautious satisfaction. President Enrique Peña Nieto, of course, is taking pains to show the international community that his administration can decapitate the cartels and fight the drug war more competently than his predecessor, Felipe Calderon. The idea, Peña Nieto told reporters on Monday, is to look more to "the application of technology and information analysis," rather than the brute military muscle of the Calderon era, to quash a drug war that conservative estimates say has left 70,000 people dead since 2006. 

The irony is that there was criticism of this very data-driven strategy from within the Peña Nieto administration. But hardly anyone expected Peña Nieto to backslide, because doing so would entail "rebuffing American security officials who often supply intelligence on the whereabouts of the capos," as the Los Angeles Times reported. After all, a linchpin in Chapo's arrest was the capability of the US to orient Guzman's satellite phone. 

In a very real sense, then, the phone surveillance that undid Chapo is a feather in the US's cap. Never mind that the arrest could very well be a farce; the DEA, remember, allowed the Sinaloa, the world's tech-savviest cartel, to operate virtually unhindered between 2000 and 2012. The US, which can't ever seem to get its border security complex (with all its virtual fences, sensors, and spy towers) together, has finally, maybe, made some sort of dent in the face of brutal organized crime.

But despite it all, questions remain as to whether anything will even change. There is reason to believe Chapo's capture could loose a violent fallout, with turf wars at lower levels and, potentially, bloody internal division. There is also serious doubt that the Sinaloa will crumble, at least right now, now that Chapo's right-hand man, the elder Zambada, is expected to slide into the No. 1 spot.

"The take-down of [El Chapo] is a thorn in the side of the Sinaloa Cartel, but not a dagger in its heart," College of William and Mary government professor George Grayson, an expert on Mexico's cartels, told the Associated Press. "Zambada ... will step into El Chapo's boots. He is also allied with Juan Jose 'El Azul' Esparragoza Moreno, one of most astute lords in Mexico's underworld and, by far, its best negotiator." 

And of course, the drugs will likely just keep moving northward. Trafficking is still big business. US State Department numbers have Mexico's gangs pulling down between $19 billion and $29 billion annually from the US alone, according to Reuters. Heroin seized along the southwest border, out near where the younger Zambada was pinched back in November, shot up 232 percent from 2008 to 2012, according to data from the National Seizure System. While cocaine seizures are down along the border, "that has been offset by higher consumption in Mexico and Europe," Alberto Islas, of consultancy firm Risk Evaluation, told Reuters.

Raul Benitez, a security expert at Mexico's National Autonomous University, thinks those figures shouldn't undercut the fact that the intercontinental intelligence efforts aren't a total failure. "This shows that [US-Mexico] cooperation is working, and that it's discreet and based on intelligence-gathering," Benitez told Business Insider. "This is, without a doubt, the most important success of Pena Nieto's administration."

Chapo has moved to block extradition to the US, where he faces drug trafficking charges in seven jurisdictions. But for now, he's got enough hang ups to worry about in Mexico.