DRUGS

Under military security, Mexico extradites notorious drug lord El Chapo to US

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 January, 2017, 9:50am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 January, 2017, 11:01pm

Mexico on Thursday extradited drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to the United States - handing over one of the world’s most notorious criminals on the eve of US President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration.

Guzman is the head of the Sinaloa cartel, which is accused of generating much of the deadly violence in Mexico’s decades-long drug war and providing tonnes of narcotics to the United States, and had twice escaped from prison.

He had been fighting his extradition ever since he was recaptured almost exactly a year ago in his home state of Sinaloa, following his second daring jailbreak.

Military security - including troops behind truck-mounted machine guns - was on hand at Ciudad Juarez airport. A Mexican military jet was on the tarmac.

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Guzman had been in prison in Ciudad Juarez, which borders Texas, since he was abruptly transferred there from another penitentiary near Mexico City in May.

A US government official said on condition of anonymity that Guzman would land in New York, one of several US jurisdictions where he is facing charges.

President Enrique Pena Nieto had previously refused to extradite Guzman, but he changed his mind after the slippery drug lord’s latest escape in July 2015.

The Mexican government “delivered Mr Guzman Loera to the authorities of the United States” after the Supreme Court and a court of appeals rejected his latest bids to avoid extradition, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The appeals court ruled that the extradition conformed with a bilateral treaty and that Guzman’s rights had not been violated, the statement said.

The US Department of Justice confirmed the extradition in a brief statement, only saying that information about his initial court appearance would be “forthcoming,” without saying where he would be held.

“The Justice Department extends its gratitude to the government of Mexico for their extensive cooperation and assistance in securing the extradition of Guzman,” it said, adding that he had been charged in six separate indictments.

A spokesman for federal prosecutors in New York declined to comment.

In May, the Mexican foreign ministry approved extradition bids from California, where he is wanted for drug distribution, and Texas, where he faces a slew of charges including murder and money laundering.

Trump, who takes office on Friday, has publicly clashed with Mexico over trade and immigration issues. The Republican president-in-waiting has pledged to build a wall on the US-Mexican border.

Alejandro Hope, a prominent Mexican security expert, said the decision to extradite Guzman in the last hours of Barack Obama’s presidency and before Trump takes office was “not a coincidence.”

“It looks like they didn’t want to give Trump an early victory,” Hope said.

“They didn’t want Trump to be able to brag about it, so they managed to hand him over in the final minutes” of the Obama administration, he said.

Guzman’s extradition caps a Hollywood-worthy cat-and-mouse game between Mexican authorities and the slippery drug lord, who escaped twice from prison.

He was first captured in Guatemala in 1993, only to escape from a maximum-security prison in western Mexico in 2001 by hiding in a laundry cart.

Marines backed by the US Drug Enforcement Administration arrested him in February 2014 in the Sinaloa resort of Mazatlan, where he was staying with his wife and twin daughters.

Pena Nieto insisted at the time that Guzman would face justice at home.

But Guzman escaped from prison again in spectacular fashion just 17 months later.

His henchmen had dug a 1.5km tunnel that opened into his cell’s shower at the Altiplano prison near Mexico City, allowing him to slip out and flee on a remodelled motorbike that was fitted on tracks.

Guzman was recaptured in the Sinaloa town of Los Mochis in January 2016.

He has become a legend of Mexico’s underworld, with musicians singing his praises in folk ballads known as “narcocorridos” - tributes to drug capos.

Authorities said they tracked him down after Guzman held a clandestine meeting with US actor Sean Penn and Mexican-American actress Kate del Castillo a few months earlier.

Officials were able to intercept flirtatious text messages that Guzman sent to the actress.

After he was arrested again, Pena Nieto ordered officials to speed up the process.

Raul Benitez Manaut, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the extradition “definitely weakens the Sinaloa cartel.”

The cartel could be taken over by Guzman’s close associate, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who has never spent a day behind bars.

But Guzman’s sons, Archivaldo Ivan and Jesus Alfredo Guzman, may also harbor their own ambitions.

“There will be an internal fight between his sons and the sons of other of the founders. It could be violent - or maybe it could be peaceful,” Benitez Manaut said.