SAN DIEGO — Alleged drug kingpin Victor Emilio Cazares, among the most wanted traffickers in the United States, has been arrested in Mexico, U.S. and Mexican officials say, despite having changed his appearance through plastic surgery.
A senior U.S. law enforcement official in Mexico confirmed this week that Cazares was captured April 8 at a highway checkpoint near the western city of Guadalajara. Mexican authorities on Friday confirmed that Cazares was in custody.
Mexican authorities did not make the arrest public at the time. Cazares, 48, is believed to be a key lieutenant to Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel, and his arrest is seen as a blow to the sprawling criminal organization, the most powerful in Mexico.
Cazares is charged with running a vast drug-distribution network featured in a Times series last year, “Inside the Cartel.” U.S. law enforcement sources said he was nabbed by Mexican authorities with the help of U.S. federal agents. Federal prosecutors in San Diego, where Cazares was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2007, are seeking his extradition.
Mexican police had trouble identifying Cazares because he had undergone plastic surgery, the sources said. Though Cazares kept a low profile in Mexico, his photograph appeared on a widely circulated list of Mexico’s most wanted drug traffickers distributed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Cazares eventually admitted his identity to Mexican officials, who also confirmed it through photos and fingerprint information from the U.S., where Cazares has two drug-trafficking convictions.
Cazares, in a photograph taken at the scene of the arrest, appeared much younger than his age, said one U.S. officer familiar with the investigation. “If somebody had asked me who this is, I would have said, ‘I don’t know,' ” said the officer. “He’s aging in the wrong direction, from old to young.”
It’s not unheard-of for Mexican drug traffickers to go under the knife to obscure their identities. In the most infamous case, drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes, nicknamed “Lord of the Skies,” died in 1997 after extensive surgery to alter his appearance, including liposuction. Two of the doctors involved in the operation were later tortured and killed.
-- Richard Marosi in San Diego and Ken Ellingwood in Mexico City
Photo: A pair of handout photos show Victor Emilio Cazares before and after he had plastic surgery. Credit: Handout