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Published: Monday February 24, 2014 MYT 11:30:05 AM
Updated: Monday February 24, 2014 MYT 11:30:05 AM

Modest condo, port town: prosaic end to Mexican kingpin's reign

MAZATLAN, Mexico (Reuters) - He was once on Forbes magazine's billionaires list, but after more than a decade on the run, Mexico's most wanted drug lord Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman was finally caught in a modest beachside condo with American retirees for neighbours.

Just days after escaping from the clutches of Mexican troops

through a tunnel and sewer, Guzman was fast asleep when Mexican Marines crept up on him in the decidedly unglamorous condominium in this resort city in northwest Mexico.

Neighbours had no idea they were sharing a building with one of the world's leading organized crime bosses, the first man to be named by Chicago as Public Enemy No. 1 since legendary bootlegger Al Capone.

"We woke up at 4:30 (a.m.) with a guy banging on my door. They are yelling in Spanish," said Jim Fuller, 83, a retired music teacher and school band director who has lived in the building for seven years with his Mexican wife.

"My wife says 'Don't open it, they will kill us, who are they?' I say 'They will break it down if I don't open it'," he added, recounting the previous day's drama as he headed out to church on Sunday morning.

He said the Marines then broke into another apartment where a Canadian lived. That man fled.

"He said 'To hell with this'. I don't think he will ever come back," Fuller added.

Inside the condominium tower in Mazatlan, a fishing port and tourist hub in Guzman's native state of Sinaloa, clothes and bed sheets were left strewn over the tiled floor of the drug baron's austere apartment following the raid.

The condo sits on a strip of bars and restaurants that locals said serve as fronts for money laundering. There was no sign of sushi at a sushi bar just next door on Saturday evening, just two skimpily clad women milling about inside as two tough-looking youths played pool.

Mazatlan, which lies around 135 miles (220 km) from Guzman's suspected base in Culiacan, is one of Mexico's top fishing ports and the capital of Mexico's shrimping industry.

The area has been a popular getaway for other drug bosses in the past. A few blocks away sit the ruins of a nightclub and homes that belonged to a rival cartel. When seized, nearly two dozen luxury vehicles were found in a hidden underground garage.

Mazatlan is one of the Sinaloa gang's sanctuaries. Locals say gang members move freely during the town's annual carnival, which begins next week.

"They walk around here like it's nothing. The government's protecting them," said Jose Luis, a security guard and former policeman posted outside one of the houses. Multicoloured carnival lights dangle from palm trees along the seafront opposite.

The condominium where Guzman was caught is a far cry from the luxurious ranch, complete with a personal zoo that included lions, where legendary Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar once lived.

But like Guzman, Escobar also spent the twilight of his reign largely on the run and in modest lodgings before he was gunned down in 1993.

Despite seeking to shift focus away from drug violence and onto the Mexican economy, President Enrique Pena Nieto is said to have privately made catching Guzman a top priority for his government after taking office in late 2012.

Security analysts say Saturday's pre-dawn bust is the most significant in years.

The Miramar condo made for an underwhelming setting for the end of Guzman's reign.

Short-term rents for a two-bedroom apartment in the complex cost $1,200 a month, according to rental websites.

Chaise lounges flank a swimming pool in a patio in front of the condo, which sits just across from Latin America's longest boardwalk. The apartments have panoramic views over the beach and sea.

Some neighbours fear a rival cartel will now move into Mazatlan and trigger bloodshed.

"There are going to be repercussions from this," said Iran Rivera, a former heroin addict who was collecting money for a rehabilitation centre from people walking along the boardwalk in front of the condo. "This is their boss. People are going to be without jobs."

The local economy is boosted by the drug trade that funnels into construction and businesses such as bars and restaurants.

Others are sceptical that the arrested man really is the feared drug lord.

"I don't believe it ... Do you really think he would live in a place like that?" said Juan, a 25-year old student who lives near the condominium, declining to give his surname for fear of retribution from the drug lord's henchmen.

PUBLIC ENEMY NO.1

The 5-foot 6-inch (1.7-metre) Guzman, known as "El Chapo" (Shorty) in Spanish, has smuggled billions of dollars worth of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines into the United States, as well as to Europe and Asia.

His Sinaloa cartel has also been locked in grisly turf wars with rival gangs.

Wearing a cream shirt and dark jeans and sporting a black mustache, he cut a sombre figure as he was frog-marched across the airport tarmac in Mexico City on Saturday and sent to prison.

Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said security forces had nearly caught Guzman days earlier, but he gave them the slip and escaped through tunnels and a sewer. They then tracked him down again and waited for the right moment to strike, entering the property in Mazatlan early on Saturday morning.

Local media reported Guzman was tracked after he used a satellite phone from a tunnel days earlier, seeking help to escape.

The Marines evaded two security teams posted to protect the drug lord at the condo. Guzman and three other people, including one woman, were asleep at the time of the raid.

The whole operation took around 7-1/2 minutes. Neighbours saw the helicopters whisking Guzman away, but many did not know who had been captured until hours later when the news broke.

Pat Henretty, 73, a professional Santa Claus who has been coming to Mazatlan with his wife since 1975, had a front row seat to the bust from his balcony.

"It was so professional, like clockwork," he said describing how he saw a group of soldiers sneak into the house quietly, calling out once they had secured their target.

"We have been coming down here for years and we know about some people who are influential, and sometimes they have all kinds of bodyguards and sometimes they are trying to get away from it and be low-profile, which is what he was trying to do evidently."

Karam said 16 houses and four ranches were seized during a months-long effort, part of a web of properties Guzman used to move between as part of his life on the run.

It is not the first time Guzman has been caught. In 2001, he famously escaped a Mexican prison, reportedly in a laundry cart, and went on to become the country's highest-profile trafficker. He is believed to command groups of hitmen from the U.S. border into Central America.

He has been indicted in the United States on dozens of charges of racketeering and conspiracy to import cocaine, heroin, marijuana and crystal meth. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn said on Sunday that it would seek Guzman's extradition.

Forbes had put Guzman on its list of billionaires but then dropped him last year because it was impossible to verify his wealth.

(Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray, Meredith Mazzilli and Eric Walsh)

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