[Stansell, Howes, and Gonsalves] were the top priority of U.S. Southern Command, and over the course of five years, we expended over $250 million, 17,000 flight hours, 3,600 air sorties, and undertook many operations in the jungle to try and recover our shipmates.
From mid-June on, [U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William] Brownfield and a team of 100 people at the U.S. Embassy who had been dedicated to securing the American hostages' release worked closely with the Colombians running the operation.
"The truth of the matter is, we have actually come together in a way that we rarely have in the United States of America, except with longtime allies, principally NATO allies," Brownfield said of relations with Colombia's security forces, which have received more than $4 billion in military aid since 2000.
Several times, he said, the U.S. government had to make decisions -- "at the highest levels" -- about proceeding.
During this time, Admiral Stavridis was in contact with Ambassador Brownfield three to four times a day.
The agent also explained that U.S. agents are strictly banned from talking to the media about Guzman, who escaped a maximum security jail for a second time in July 2015.
As to the intensity of US engagement on the issue, and the inescapable SIGINT component, there’s a nice, in depth piece in the New Yorker from last year by Patrick Radden Keefe (on the occasion of El Chapo’s previous capture) that gives an idea of the high level US interest in the case and the resources it made available.
Espinoza had recently undergone back surgery. He stretched, readjusted his surgical corset, exposing it. It dawns on me that one of our greeters might mistake the corset for a device that contains a wire, a chip, a tracker. With all their eyes on him, Espinoza methodically adjusts the Velcro toward his belly, slowly looks up, sharing his trademark smile with the suspicious eyes around him. Then, “Cirugia de espalda [back surgery],” he says. Situation defused.
[Apparently El Chapo was eagerly texting Kate del Castillo, the acress who set up and attended the Penn meeting, as well as his lawyer during the period he was supposedly ensconced in the cell-coverage-free Sinaloa mountains. Either there is cell-phone coverage up there--any enterprising journo want to go up there and, you know, try to make a phone call?--or, which seems more likely, El Chapo was spending his precious days of freedom in a comfy hotel in some town, maybe Los Michos where he was eventually captured, instead of rusticating in the mountains. And, inevitably, he traipsed back to the ranch for the bucolic interview with Penn instead of receiving the movie-star studded, media-and law enforcement blanketed party in downtown wherever.
If, as I expect, El Chapo was texting his lawyer and del Castillo through a cutout (charged perhaps with retyping the semi-literate jefe's musings instead of just forwarding them), maybe Mexican and US law enforcement really weren't able to get a bead on him and needed to run the Penn op.
Penn and Estillo were under surveillance during the October visit--they Mexican government's got the photos to prove it!--so the US clearly knew they were headed El Chapo's way. It wouldn't be surprising if the DEA or somebody decided to run some sort of geolocation operation piggybacked onto the meeting in case they weren't able to physically follow the group to El Chapo.
There are ways to do this using a cell-phone, even where there's no coverage. The DEA can fly a Stingray, basically a fake cellphone tower, through the area, turn on the phone remotely (this program, known as "The Find" is a much-treasured capability of the NSA's alliance with JSOC in the "We Track 'Em You Whack 'Em" tag-team; it's unclear how it works but it may require installing some malware on the target phone) and triangulate the phone's location. One of the amusing sidelines of El Chapo's texting is his desire to gift del Castillo with a pretty pink phone; maybe that's how law enforcement got a fix.
A simpler but more dangerous method would be carrying a beacon up there, the scenario that Wheeler discusses. The standard issue US drone-assassination beacon, known to AfPak targets as the "pathrai," has a range of 12 miles and is "the size of two AA batteries" in other words rather bulky and would need a hiding place--like Espinosa's back brace.
I'm guessing the law enforcement mindset is "redundancy is better; let's do both!", so maybe for the ranch op they could have gone with the relatively low-risk phone thing and the much risker "pathrai" approach.
After Penn and his party left, the Mexican Marines conducted a rather messy raid on the ranch, not netting El Chapo but, according to one report, collecting a bunch of cell phones. El Chapo then fled (or returned to) Los Michos, perhaps in some opsec disarray, and was captured there. CH--1/15/16]