What the extradition of 'El Chapo' means for US-Mexico relations

Coming on the eve of Donald Trump's inauguration, the move may signal Mexico's attitude towards cooperating with the United States. 

U.S. law enforcement/AP
In this photo provided U.S. law enforcement, authorities escort Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, center, from a plane to a waiting caravan of SUVs at Long Island MacArthur Airport on Thursday. The infamous drug kingpin who twice escaped from maximum-security prisons in Mexico was extradited at the request of the U.S. to face drug trafficking and other charges, and landed in New York late Thursday, a federal law enforcement official said.

On Thursday evening, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was extradited to the United States from Mexico, arriving at MacArthur Airport on Long Island. Although the United States has repeatedly requested the extradition of the notorious drug kingpin, the date of his arrival – on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration – caught many officials in both countries off guard.

But the timing may send a message about US-Mexican relations, close observers say, pointing to the need for future cooperation between the two neighbors – especially on the so-called drug war.

Whatever the motive behind the extradition, US officials were quick to herald the move as evidence of the success of bilateral cooperation. President Trump’s rhetoric on Mexico, beginning during the campaign and continuing during the presidential transition suggest a rocky road ahead. But analysts say that cooperation should continue.

“Both countries really have much to gain and much more to lose from an antagonistic relationship,” Chris Wilson, the deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview.

Over the past 10 years, the two countries have enjoyed “an unprecedented level of cooperation” on security issues, Octavio Rodriguez Ferreira, the program coordinator for Justice in Mexico, a research project based at the University of San Diego, tells the Monitor, and Guzman's capture testifies to that teamwork.

At a press conference in New York on Friday, officials described the extradition as a “triumph of the rule of law” and evidence of a bilateral “commitment to justice.” Guzman, who faces a 17-count indictment, entered a "not guilty" plea in federal court in Brooklyn, NY, on Friday. His next court appearance is set for February 3.

The day before, Mexican deputy attorney general Elias Beltran stated that the timing of Guzman’s extradition was purely coincidental.

“It was resolved today, and we under terms of the international treaty had to make the handover immediately,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

But the timing may also be a calculated message to the next administration, amid questions about whether past cooperation could now be in jeopardy. Trump has vowed to "build a wall" on the border and establish a "border tax," suggesting uncertainty about the future of collaboration on important issues from drugs to immigration.

"The question isn't really 'Will cooperation continue? – much, if not most, of it can and will," explains Shannon O’Neil, the senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "The question is will it be done well, or will the bitter words and hard feelings erode these deep ties."

By sending El Chapo just before the inauguration, Mexican officials can emphasize their relationship with his predecessor's administration, analysts suggest. 

“Mexico…made clear that they did not want Donald Trump to get or claim any credit for this,” says Peter H. Smith, a longtime professor at the University of California, San Diego now at the University of Denver who specializes in US-Latin American relations. 

Dr. O’Neil agrees that Mexico intended to give the victory to Obama.

“Mexican nationalism has been rising with each negative tweet [from Trump], so this ensures Chapo’s extradition isn’t seen as 'giving in' to Trump if NAFTA or other negotiations get tough,” she writes in an email to the Monitor. 

Alternatively, the handover could be an overture to Congress, as an effort to secure funding for bilateral security initiatives, among other things.

“This is an important way to strengthen relationships with Congressional Republicans. That’s really where some of the strongest pushes have been felt for the past couple of years, in terms of the extradition of Chapo,” Mr. Wilson explains, adding that Mexican officials have made numerous visits to Republicans on the Hill in an effort to demonstrate the value of security cooperation between the two countries.

Mexico is serious about tackling organized crime, experts indicate, as underscored by El Chapo's extradition. But going forward, US-Mexico cooperation may require some changes. 

“For years," Wilson adds, "there’s been a notion that you compartmentalize the relationship,” keeping trade relations separate from discussions of bilateral security, for instance. Such an approach can help prevent destabilizing an entire relationship on account of a disagreement in one area. In order to gain leverage, however, Mexico may now find it more beneficial to “put everything on the table together,” from the economy to terrorism and drug trafficking, he suggests.

But whatever changes occur, years of partnership may help protect the core of the US-Mexico relationship. 

“I read the timing as a clear message to Trump that Mexico wants to work cooperatively with the new administration, but they will also aggressively protect Mexican interests, sovereignty and nationalist pride,” Pamela Starr, the director of the US-Mexico Network at the University of Southern California, writes in an email to the Monitor.

“I expect the deep foundations for partnership and cooperation for partnership and cooperation that have developed over the past 30 years will ultimately dominate relations,” she concludes.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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