MEXICO CITY — A little more than a week before Mexicans go to the polls to select a new president, a drug arrest has become a point of contention that underscores why they’re skeptical about official pronouncements.
On Thursday, Mexican authorities said they’d busted the son of the nation’s biggest drug lord, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. By Friday, however, doubts had surfaced. A lawyer said the young man whom Mexican naval officers had escorted before television cameras a day earlier was not Guzman’s son but a car dealer from Guadalajara.
“He has nothing to do with what the navy says and was arrested along with another person who also has nothing to do with it,” lawyer Heriberto Rangel Mendez said.
In a chaotic news conference later Friday in a restaurant in Guadalajara, lawyer Veronica Gonzalez stood beside a woman who claimed to be the arrested man’s mother. They identified him as Felix Beltran Leon and said he had nothing to do with the Sinaloa drug lord. Gonzalez blamed his arrest on “the electoral period.”
Mexican and U.S. authorities dodged questions about which side had provided the initial identity of the detainees, saying the other side was responsible, but they didn’t back down from assertions that whoever was arrested, his detention was a blow to organized crime.
Hours after making the arrests in a suburb of Guadalajara, a navy spokesman said one of the two detainees was Jesus Alfredo Guzman Salazar, the 26-year-old son of the Sinaloa Cartel boss, whom the U.S. Treasury Department labels as the world’s most-wanted drug trafficker. The spokesman said the two men had been seized along with four firearms, four grenades, multiple IDs and about $135,000 in U.S. cash.
A spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Rusty Payne, told McClatchy Newspapers he didn’t know who’d provided the identity of the detainee but it could have been confidential informants “who told us that it was Chapo’s son.”
In any case, Payne said, “that’s something for the Mexicans to answer.”
Addressing the issue — or perhaps muddying the waters — Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office issued a statement Friday that said officials “began expert checks” on the two men and “will resolve the legal status of both parties.”
It said the “initial establishment of the alleged identity” came from “various U.S. agencies” with which it commonly exchanges information.
Doubts about the identification were widespread. A prize-winning newspaper in Sinaloa state, Riodoce, posted on its website a photo of a driver’s license bearing the image of the detained man but with the name Felix Beltran Leon, and said its “sources” had affirmed that he isn’t Guzman’s son, who goes by the nicknames “Alfredillo” and “El Gordo,” or Fatso.
Sylvia Longmire, a former U.S. Air Force analyst and the author of a 2011 book on the Mexican drug war, “Cartel,” said she’d compared an older photo of the son with images of the man arrested Thursday.
“There’s no way,” she said in an email. “Look at the distance between the eyes and the eyebrows, the height of the forehead, the hairline, set of the mouth.”
The conflicting stories only fueled a suspicious streak among Mexicans in the final lap of a campaign that ends with elections July 1. Critics of President Felipe Calderon and his center-right National Action Party, whose candidate lags in polls, have said they suspected that the government might try to nab Guzman before the vote as a trophy to draw voters.
The elder Guzman, the 55-year-old leader of the Sinaloa Cartel and a denizen of the Forbes billionaire list with an estimated fortune of $1 billion, is known to have seven children by at least three women. One of those liaisons, Emma Coronel, a U.S. citizen, gave birth to twin girls last August in a Los Angeles County hospital, returning to Mexico afterward since no criminal charges were pending against her.
While the latest arrest remained a puzzle, it’s clear that U.S. and Mexican authorities are tightening a noose around Guzman and his family.
Earlier this month, the Treasury Department listed Jesus Alfredo Guzman and his mother, Maria Alejandrina Salazar, as narcotics kingpins. A month earlier, two other sons of “El Chapo,” 31-year-old Ivan Archivaldo and 22-year-old Ovidio, were put on the kingpin list.
Guzman himself, who broke out of prison in 2001 in a laundry truck, was nearly captured in Los Cabos in February, prosecutors said.
U.S. prosecutors in northern Illinois indicted Jesus Alfredo Guzman, his father and numerous other alleged Sinaloa Cartel members in 2009, and would certainly seek extradition if they were captured. Calderon’s government has extradited some 230 detainees to the United States since 2006.