Mexican authorities have set in motion a legal process that makes it unlikely drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman will soon face US cases also pending against him.
The Federal Judicial Council said the powerful drug lord had been formally charged under a 2009 Mexican indictment for cocaine trafficking, an action that could put him on path for a trial that would take precedence over any extradition request.
A judge has until Tuesday to decide whether a trial is warranted. Guzman, who is being held in a maximum security prison west of Mexico City, could then appeal the judge’s decision, a process that typically takes weeks or months.
Also on Monday, Guzman’s lawyers filed a petition asking a court for an injunction to block any extradition request from the United States. In the past, similar appeals by other drug suspects have taken months, and sometimes years, to resolve.
And before considering any extradition request that might come from the US, Mexican officials also must weigh whether to renew other charges against Guzman. When he escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001 he was serving convictions for criminal association and bribery, and he was awaiting trial on charges of murder and drug trafficking.
What to do with Guzman is a politically sensitive subject for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has sought to carve out more control over joint anti-drug efforts with the United States. Analysts said his administration is likely torn between the impulse to move Guzman to a high security US facility and the desire to show that Mexico can successfully retry and incarcerate the former fugitive head of the world’s most powerful drug cartel.
Eduardo Sanchez, the presidential spokesman, did not answer his phone or return messages on Monday asking whether the government was considering extraditing Guzman to the US.
Prominent trial lawyer Juan Velasquez, who has represented former Mexican presidents, said that if the administration did decide to extradite Guzman, legal appeals would only delay the process because Mexico has removed obstacles to sending its citizens for trial in other countries.
“If the United States asks for a Mexican to be extradited, that Mexican, sooner rather than later, will wind up extradited,” said Velasquez, who is not involved in the Guzman case.
US Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said on Monday that extradition “will be the subject of further discussion between the United States and Mexico.”
And before making an extradition request, the US government has to sort out where it would want to try Guzman, who faces charges in at least seven US jurisdictions.
“You want number one to be the best shot that you have,” said David Weinstein, a former assistant US attorney in the Southern District of Florida in Miami who helped prosecute several high-profile suspected drug traffickers in his 11 years in office. “What do they say? If you shoot at the king, you make sure you hit him in the head.”
Many in Mexico see extradition as the best way to punish Guzman and break up his empire, given the United States’ more certain legal system and better investigation capacities.
“The only option that would allow for dismantling this criminal network is extradition, and that’s unfortunate,” said Edgardo Buscaglia, an expert on the cartel and a senior research scholar at Colombia University. “Because, in the end, extraditions are an escape valve for Mexico,” which has been slow to improve its own investigative police, prosecution and court system.
Security expert Jorge Chabat said, “If he stays in Mexico there are risks he could escape or continue to control his criminal organisation from inside prison.”
That is not a far-fetched possibility. Velasquez, the trial lawyer, said some Mexican defence attorneys who get involved in such cases often act as messengers for their clients.
“Because they are lawyers, they have free access to the prison, so more than being lawyers they are, let’s say, part of the gang, intermediaries for the gang,” he said.
As the extradition question was debated, new details emerged on Monday on how Guzman was snatched by Mexican marines from a condo in front of his beauty-queen wife and his twin two-year-old daughters.
Guzman spent 13 years on the run before he was arrested on Saturday morning in the Pacific coast city of Mazatlan by Mexican marines acting on US intelligence. Over the preceding week, Guzman had fled through a network of homes in the city of Culiacan that were connected by tunnels. At each house, the Mexican military found the same thing: steel reinforced doors and an escape hatch below a bathtub. Each hatch led to a series of interconnected tunnels in the city’s drainage system.
An AP reporter who walked through one tunnel in Culiacan had to dismount into a canal and stoop to enter the drain pipe, which was filled with water and mud and smelled of sewage. About 700 metres in, a trap door was open, revealing a newly constructed tunnel. Large and lined with wood panels like a cabin, the passage had lighting and air conditioning. At the end of the tunnel was a blue ladder attached to the wall that led to one of the houses Mexican authorities say Guzman used as a hideout.
A day after troops narrowly missed Guzman in Culiacan, top aide Manuel Lopez Ozorio was arrested. The officials said he told investigators that he had picked up Guzman, a woman and the drug lord’s communications chief, Carlos Manuel Ramirez, from a drainage pipe and helped them flee to Mazatlan.
Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong said no US agents were present at the less-than-luxurious condo in Mazatlan when marines burst in and grabbed Guzman in front of his wife, Emma Coronel, and his US-born twin daughters without any shots being fired. Photos of the condo showed a crib in one of the rooms.
Osorio Chong said of Guzman, “When he saw the marines in front of him, he accepted his detention and immediately let the marines do their job.”
“She was there, his wife, and their two daughters were there, but they had nothing to do with it. They were released,” Osorio Chong said.