Will Mexico extradite 'El Chapo' to a prison in the US?

Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman is in custody again. But American authorities say he'll be more secure in a US prison. After two escapes, why might Mexico want to keep him?

Marco Ugarte/AP
Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, right, is escorted by soldiers and marines to a waiting helicopter. The world's most wanted drug lord was recaptured Friday, six months after an escape that deeply embarrassed the government and strained US ties.
Eduardo Verdugo/AP
This July 15, 2015 photo shows the shower area where Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, slipped into a tunnel to escape from his prison cell at the Altiplano maximum security prison. Now that El Chapo is in custody again, American authorities suggest he might be more secure if extradited to America.

Mexico's notorious drug king is in government custody following his second escape, but his recapture raises the delicate diplomatic question of extradition to the United States.

The recapture of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman enabled Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto to Tweet on Friday, "Mission accomplished: we have him," doubtless a welcome relief after what Mark Stevenson of the Associated Press called, "one of the biggest embarrassments of his administration."

The escape strained relations among neighbors by highlighting the conflict between Mexican national pride and officials in the United States who felt validated for wanting Mr. Guzman extradited in the first place. For months prior to his second escape on July 11, 2015, US officials had been asking to extradite the drug lord. He had already escaped from prison in 2001, and it took 13 years to recapture him.

"He escaped from a prison in 2001. There is corruption in that country," Texas Rep. Michael McCaul (R), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told ABC News in 2014. "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."

US officials filed a request for Guzman's extradition just weeks before his July escape, although former Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo told the AP at the time Mexico would grant the request only after Guzman served "300 or 400 years" in a Mexican prison for violating Mexican laws.

Because Guzman was such a prominent case, the Mexican government saw his 2014 capture and punishment as an opportunity to display the effectiveness of their law enforcement authorities against drug cartels – without help from the United States. 

"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,” 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,” told Mark Guarino for The Christian Science Monitor.

The Mexican government has struggled for years to contain the drug cartels, but drug cartel operations continue. From the pattern killing of local officials and mayors in Mexico to the 2010 murder of an Arizona rancher by an unknown suspect believed to be involved with cross-border drug smuggling, the drug wars have led to violence on both sides of the border and at times strained the government's standing with both the US and its own people.

Trying to show it can handle the problem, Mexico resented US requests to extradite a total of 13 individuals associated with drug cartel crimes. But after the embarrassment of El Chapo's second dramatic escape, Mexico sent nine of the 13 suspects north of the border, Evan Perez and Joshua Gaynor reported for CNN.

"This is a signal they understand mistakes were made," a U.S. official told CNN at the time.

Many of those extradited were high-profile, and US law-enforcement officials said they thought the Mexican government would keep them as a symbol of its own efficiency. The September 2015 extradition could be a sign that Mexico will hand the newly captured Guzman over as well, trading a small amount of national pride for guaranteed safety from the embarrassment of a third escape from its prison system, Steve Almasy reported for CNN.

"The only way that the government of Mexico is going to ensure absolutely that they don't go through another embarrassing situation, another embarrassing escape, is to extradite him to the United States," Michael Braun, a former chief of operations at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, told CNN.

Reuters reported that Mexican officials intend to fulfill a request from the United States to extradite the newly-recaptured drug lord Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman to face drug trafficking charges, sources familiar with the situation said on Saturday.

The Mexican Attorney General's office will be working as fast as possible to establish the path to extradition, and Chapo could be sent to the United States by mid-year, one of the sources said. However the timing will likely depend on injunctions filed by Guzman's legal team.

Guzman, boss of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, is wanted by U.S. authorities on a host of criminal charges. His organization has smuggled billions of dollars worth of drugs into the United States and is blamed for thousands of deaths due to addiction and gang violence.

"The objective is to fulfill the extradition request," one source said.

But Juan Pablo Badillo, a lawyer representing Guzman, said on Saturday that Guzman could not be extradited. "In strict accordance with the constitution, he cannot nor should not be extradited to any foreign country," Badillo told local television channel Milenio. "Why? Because he is Mexican, and Mexico has wise laws and a fair constitution, and there is absolute confidence in the prisons authority."

Milenio cited Badillo as saying that Guzman's team had filed six injunctions against extradition to the United States.

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