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Reports of drug lord Guzman's death in Guatemala probably false

A top Guatemalan official backs away from an earlier report that Mexico's Joaquin 'Chapo' Guzman may have died in a gun battle. It is now uncertain whether a battle even took place.

February 22, 2013|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • This poster displayed at a Chicago Crime Commission news conference last week in Chicago shows Joaquin "Chapo'' Guzman, a drug kingpin in Mexico. Reports that Guzman had been killed Thursday in Guatemala apparently were false.
This poster displayed at a Chicago Crime Commission news conference last… (M. Spencer Green, Associated…)

MEXICO CITY — Authorities conducted aerial sweeps over Guatemala's northern jungle Friday in search of bodies left by a reported gun battle between Mexican traffickers, but speculation that a notorious drug lord died there was fading fast.

Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla said residents in the hard-to-access Peten region on Guatemala's northern border with Mexico reported seeing convoys of heavily armed men Thursday who engaged in a gun battle. They reported seeing two dead bodies, Lopez Bonilla told a local radio station.

When that information surfaced Thursday, it led to frenzied speculation that the dead might include Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, billionaire chieftain of the powerful Sinaloa cartel, the much-wanted mastermind of Mexico's largest and oldest drug-trafficking organization.

Lopez Bonilla and other Guatemalan officials spoke of a physical resemblance of one of the dead to Guzman.

But on Friday, the minister backtracked, saying the reports were a "mix-up" and the result of hastily gathered, erroneous information and rumors.

"It was chaotic information," Lopez Bonilla said, apologizing for the frantic reaction his earlier comments touched off. He met with President Otto Perez Molina and top military leaders until the wee hours Friday to figure out what had happened, he said.

In fact, it was no longer clear by Friday afternoon that any sort of gun battle had taken place.

It would not be the first time that Guzman, listed by Forbes magazine as one of the world's richest people, has been the subject of reported sightings and mythic near-captures, some perhaps true and many part of Mexican folklore.

A fugitive since he escaped from a maximum-security prison in 2001, supposedly by hiding in a laundry cart, Guzman commands the cartel named for the Pacific state that is the historical cradle of Mexican drug production.

U.S. and Mexican authorities have bounties on his head in excess of $5 million.

The aerial search Friday targeted the vast Peten, where Mexican traffickers from the Sinaloa cartel set up shop more than five years ago, taking advantage of the Wild West nature of the region.

More recently, the Zetas, a rival Mexican drug paramilitary force, has been fighting Sinaloa operatives for control of the region made lucrative by its ease of transportation routes and fairly dysfunctional government.

wilkinson@latimes.com

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