Mexico's capture of ‘El Chapo’: How likely is extradition to US?

Federal officials in Chicago and Brooklyn have already said they will seek the extradition of drug kingpin Joaquín 'El Chapo' Guzmán. The Obama administration hasn't taken an official position on the matter.

Marco Ugarte/AP
Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City, Saturday, Feb. 22. Guzman faces multiple federal drug trafficking indictments in the US and is on the Drug Enforcement Administration's most-wanted list.

Soon after Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was captured last weekend in a coastal town in Mexico, some US officials in two federal court jurisdictions announced they wanted the drug kingpin extradited to stand trial on a series of charges, including drug trafficking and murder.

When that will happen, or if it will, is tenuous, diplomacy experts say, as it depends largely on the political tightrope between Mexico and the United States, as well as the ability of Mexican authorities to prove they can keep Guzmán in lockdown after a 2001 escape.

Mexico has not yet said what it plans to do. “The security cabinet will need to meet and take the most appropriate decision,” Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong told a radio station on Monday, according to Reuters.

Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, a leading criminal organization responsible for funneling billions of dollars of drugs each year to the US, as well as to Europe and Australia, remains a feared presence in Mexico. His deep reach into law enforcement there raises questions about the possibility of another escape or preferential treatment. For example, even though he is thought to be behind hundreds, if not thousands, of killings across Mexico, he has not been charged with murder – only organized crime, drug trafficking, and arms trafficking.

But Mexico has plenty of motivation to handle the case effectively on its own. “Because this is a high-profile case, [Mexican President Enrique] Peña Nieto wants to demonstrate Mexico is capable of doing its own business without depending on its neighbor up north to do so,” says Sylvia Longmire, a former special agent with the US Air Force and author of the book “Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars.”

“So extradition is up in the air more than it would have been otherwise,” she adds.

Already, the US is trying to play down the perception it is trying to force Mexico’s hand. White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday that the administration congratulated the Mexican government and did not have an official position on extradition.

Likewise, the Drug Enforcement Administration released a statement late Monday saying that remarks made by retired DEA agent Phil Jordan – who told CNN that “until he gets extradited to the United States, it will be business as usual” – “do not reflect the views” of the agency.

Guzmán’s arrest “was a significant achievement for Mexico and a major step forward in our shared fight against transnational organized crime, violence, and drug trafficking,” the DEA statement read.

In the US, Guzmán faces charges in Chicago, New York, Miami, San Diego, and other cities. The charges range from smuggling cocaine and heroin to participating in an ongoing criminal enterprise involving murder and racketeering.

Federal officials in Chicago and Brooklyn have already said they will seek extradition, but the process is far from simple.

“This is going to be a completely political question. Extradition is extremely complicated,” says George W. Grayson, an emeritus professor of government at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and author of “The Cartels: The Story of Mexico’s Most Dangerous Criminal Organizations and Their Impact on U.S. Security.”

The first step is approval from the US State Department, which would then allow the US Department of Justice to assemble paperwork that would put the process in motion. The US ambassador to Mexico, currently Earl Anthony “Tony” Wayne, would make the formal extradition request.

If granted the request, the Justice Department would then review in which city Guzmán should stand trial. The choice would be based on where a conviction is most likely.

Already, Guzmán attorneys have filed an injunction to block any move for extradition. The ultimate decision would probably be up to President Peña Nieto.

Until now, Peña Nieto has sought to distance himself from the cartel wars, instead shifting focus to rooting out violence, Professor Grayson says. So having Guzmán in Mexico is the “800-pound gorilla in the room,” he says. “It will make the drug war more salient, and that’s the last thing he wants.”

On the other hand, Grayson says, Peña Nieto is concerned about not being seen as “subservient to Uncle Sam,” and he’s probably conducting polling to gauge public opinion. Congressional elections take place in Mexico next year, which will also play a role in the decision, Grayson says.

Time is on his side. Guzmán was serving a 20-year, nine-month sentence when he escaped. He had served only seven years, which means the Mexican government has every right to keep him locked up to serve the rest of the sentence before any extradition.

Guzmán is being held in solitary confinement in the Altiplano prison outside Mexico City.

US officials are worried that the longer he sits in prison, the more irrelevant he becomes as a potential source of intelligence. “One reason why the US is interested in extraditing him is they want to get as much current intelligence as they can,” Ms. Longmire says. “They’re not sure how much information he is willing to give up, but his information on rival cartels would be incredibly useful to us.”

There is a growing chorus of political voices in the US demanding extradition sooner than later.

“There's a history here. He escaped from a prison in 2001. There is corruption in that country. And I would ask that the Mexicans consider extraditing him to the United States, where he will be put into a ‘supermax’ prison under tight security, where he cannot escape, and be brought to justice with a life sentence,” Texas Rep. Michael McCaul (R), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told ABC News.

If Guzmán does end up in the US and is convicted, it is likely he would serve his sentence at a supermax federal penitentiary in Florence, Colo., that is home to Ted "the Unabomber" Kaczynski and 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, among others.

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