Why a US jail cell may finally contain Mexico's 'El Chapo'

The Mexican government has repeatedly declined to extradite its criminals to the US. But Joaquín Guzmán's frequent escapes have changed that thinking.

Marco Ugarte/AP
Mexican drug lord Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman (r.) is escorted by soldiers and marines to a waiting helicopter, at a federal hangar in Mexico City, Friday, Jan. 8, 2016. The world's most wanted drug lord was recaptured by Mexican marines Friday, six months after he fled through a tunnel from a maximum security prison in an escape that deeply embarrassed the government and strained ties with the United States.

It’s déjà vu all over again for kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, captured by Mexican forces for the third time on Friday and placed in the same high security prison from which he escaped in July.

But there’s a key difference this time around: Mexico has formally initiated the process to extradite Mr. Guzman to the United States, something officials here vehemently opposed upon his 2014 arrest.

There’s still no guarantee Guzman will be sent to the US, where he faces at least seven federal court indictments for murder and drug trafficking. But the government’s change in stance marks a shift in attitudes toward extradition. It also signals a renewed effort by President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government to improve relations with the US after struggling through a series of recent low-points, from Guzman’s escape to the high-profile disappearance of 43 teacher’s college students in Guerrero in 2014. 

“This is a sign of good intentions on the part of Mexico,” says Analicia Ruiz, an expert on US-Mexico relations at the Anahuac University in Mexico City, who says the bilateral relationship has been strained under this administration.

“It’s a delicate decision,” she says, noting that an extradition would be an acknowledgment that the government can’t ensure El Chapo will remain behind bars. “But on the other hand, to not extradite him could further damage relations.”

An aversion to extradition

Last year, when the topic came up, then-Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam, famously said, “I can accept extradition, but when I say so. El Chapo has to stay here and do his time, then I’ll extradite him. Some 300, 400 years later.”

Mexico has long been opposed to extradition – and any perceived form of US meddling – in the name of sovereignty.

“In Mexico, there is a lot of nationalism built into the notion of foreign policy,” says David Mena Alemán, who teaches international affairs at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City. “It’s a social point of pride: don’t meddle.”

This position dates back to the Mexican Revolution, and is strongly ingrained in the politics of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled for seven consecutive decades until 2000, and came back into office with President Peña Nieto in 2012.

But in the interim, the government took a new tack on extradition. President Felipe Calderon (2006-2012) drew much closer to the US, and his government extradited more than 150 suspects to the United States within his first two years in office alone. He was often criticized for the access he gave US agencies to participate – or interfere – in Mexico’s fight against organized crime.

“There used to be an enormous amount of sensitivity about [extradition], but that was overcome by many during the Calderon years,” says Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “People became more accustomed to the idea that high-level criminals should be extradited.”

When Mr. Karam made his comments about Chapo serving hundreds of years in Mexico before stepping foot in the US, it was the reflection of a common approach by “the factions of the older PRI that don’t want to work closely with the US,” says Mr. Wood.

'Why not send him to the US?'

That thinking seems to have shifted after El Chapo escaped for the second time. A little over two months later, the Mexican government agreed to extradite some 13 individuals, including former Beltrán-Leyva Cartel member Edgar Valdez Villarreal, aka "La Barbie," to the United States.

Ana Luisa Trillo, scanning headlines at a news stand on a bustling corner here, says she supports Chapo’s extradition.

“You can focus on being offended” by the implication that Mexico can’t keep El Chapo behind bars but the US can, says Ms. Trillo. “But it’s been proven - twice. So why not send him to the US?”

Public opinion could play a role in the government’s decision to initiate the extradition process, says Mr. Alemán. Polls show extradition has gain popularity since El Chapo’s 2014 arrest. Some 52 percent of Mexicans responded to a poll published today by BCG and the newspaper Excelsior, saying they support extradition, about 5 percentage points more than in 2014. Just over 60 percent believe he’ll escape again if kept in Mexican prisons.

But Marco Olivo, a university student, says he’s still against the idea. “He owes his time to the people of Mexico. This has nothing to do with the United States.”

The speed with which an extradition to the US could take place will depend on the legal process, which could be slowed down by injunctions filed by Guzmán’s legal team. Interpol served Guzmán with formal extradition orders at the Alitplano prison, where he is being held in solitary confinement, this weekend. His legal team has about three weeks to defend his opposition to the orders, and the legal battle could carry on for months.

In the meantime Mexico is focused on keeping Guzmán safely behind bars.

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