(Reuters) - Mexico's most wanted man, drugs kingpin Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, was captured early on Saturday with help from U.S. agencies in a major victory for the government in a long, brutal drugs war.
Guzman, known as "El Chapo" (Shorty) in Spanish, has long run Mexico's infamous Sinaloa Cartel and over the past decade emerged as one of the world's most powerful organized crime bosses.
He was caught in his native northwestern state of Sinaloa in an early morning operation without a shot being fired, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said, adding that Guzman's identity had been 100 percent confirmed.
It is a political triumph for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who took office in late 2012. Pena Nieto confirmed the arrest via Twitter earlier on Saturday and congratulated his security forces. The U.S. government also applauded the arrest.
Guzman's cartel has smuggled billions of dollars worth of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamines into the United States, and fought vicious turf wars with other Mexican gangs.
Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the fighting, especially in western and northern regions that have long been key smuggling routes.
Many of the victims were tortured and beheaded and their bodies dumped in a public place or in mass graves. The violence has ravaged border cities and even beach resorts like Acapulco.
Guzman, 56, was captured in the northwestern seaside resort of Mazatlan and flown to Mexico City.
Wearing a cream shirt and dark jeans and with a black moustache, his head pushed down by a soldier in a face mask, he was frog-marched in front of reporters on live TV, bound for prison.
It was the first public glimpse of the elusive kingpin since he escaped from prison in 2001.
He looked briefly toward TV cameras waiting on the tarmac outside the Marines' hangar at Mexico City's airport, before his head was shoved back down.
Murillo Karam said that security forces had nearly caught Guzman days earlier, but he gave them the slip.
"The doors of the house … were reinforced with steel and so in the minutes it took us to open them, it allowed for an escape through tunnels," Murillo Karam said.
But they tracked him down again and waited for the right moment to strike early on Saturday. The attorney general said "some U.S. agencies" had helped in capturing Guzman but he gave no more details.
He did not say whether Guzman would face trial in Mexico or be extradited to the United States.
The 5-foot 6-inch (1.7-metre) Guzman's exploits have made him a legend in many impoverished communities of northern Mexico, where he has been immortalized in dozens of ballads and low budget movies.
The United States had placed a $5 million bounty on Guzman's head and authorities in Chicago last year dubbed him the city's first Public Enemy No.1 since gangster Al Capone.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder described the arrest as "a landmark achievement, and a victory for the citizens of both Mexico and the United States."
"The criminal activity Guzman allegedly directed contributed to the death and destruction of millions of lives across the globe through drug addiction, violence, and corruption," Holder said in a statement.
Nearly 80,000 people have died in drug-related killings in Mexico since former President Felipe Calderon sent in the army in early 2007 to quell the powerful drug bosses, a policy that Pena Nieto has criticized but found tough to break with.
There has been some concern in the United States that Pena Nieto's government might not be as aggressive in pursuing cartel leaders, but Guzman's capture will ease those fears.
"Chapo is the jewel in the crown, the most-wanted drug boss in recent years and, in that sense, this is a great success," said Jorge Chabat, an expert on drug trafficking at the CIDE research center.
FROM HUMBLE ROOTS TO BILLIONAIRE
From humble beginnings in a ramshackle village, Guzman rose up in the 1980s under the tutelage of Sinaloan kingpin Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, alias "The Boss of Bosses," who pioneered cocaine smuggling routes into the United States.
He came to prominence in 1993, when assassins who shot dead Roman Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesus Posadas claimed they had been gunning for Guzman but got the wrong target.
Guzman is the latest in a series of high profile capos to be caught or killed.
Last July, Pena Nieto's government caught the leader of the Zetas drug cartel, Miguel Angel Trevino, aka Z-40.
The Zetas have been blamed for many of the worst atrocities carried out by Mexican drug gangs, acts that have sullied the country's name and put fear into tourists and investors alike.
Founded by army deserters in the late 1990s, the Zetas initially acted as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel. But cracks began to appear and the rupture was sealed in early 2010, setting off the most violent phase in Mexico's drug war.
Calderon, a conservative, had staked his reputation on bringing Mexico's powerful drug gangs to heel, sending in the armed forces.
While his forces captured or killed many of the top capos, cartels splintered amid leadership challenges and turf wars exploded across Mexico.
He congratulated Pena Nieto and his government in a message on Twitter on Saturday, describing the arrest as a "great blow."
Analysts were divided on whether Guzman's lieutenant Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada would take the helm of the Sinaloa Cartel.
Alejandro Hope, security director at the Mexican Competitiveness Institute think tank, said Guzman's downfall represented the end of a 30-year era of high-profile drug lords running riot across Mexico.
"There will be very few figures of this caliber," he said.
Pena Nieto has sought to play down the drug fight, instead seeking to focus public attention on a series of economic reforms spanning energy to telecoms, which he has pushed through Congress aiming to boost long-lagging economic growth.
He has also tried an unorthodox strategy, co-opting vigilantes in western Mexico in the fight against the feared Knights Templar Cartel, which security experts say is potentially playing with fire.
Guzman has been caught before, and famously gave his jailers the slip.
He escaped a Mexican prison, reportedly in a laundry cart, in 2001 to become the country's most high-profile trafficker. He is believed to command groups of hitmen from the U.S. border into Central America.
He was indicted in the United States on dozens of charges of racketeering and conspiracy to import cocaine, heroin, marijuana and crystal meth.
Guzman was listed for a time in Forbes' annual list of billionaires around the world but he was dropped last year, because it was impossible to verify his wealth.