Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the cartel kingpin who made two daring escapes from high-security prisons and lived on the run for years, has been extradited to the United States where he faces prosecution on narcotics and other charges.
The Mexican foreign ministry announced the extradition in a short statement on Thursday afternoon, saying Guzmán had exhausted his appeals against his extradition.
The US embassy in Mexico City said late on Thursday that the plane carrying Guzmán had landed at MacArthur international airport in Long Island, New York, one of the US jurisdictions where he faces charges.
The announcement comes a little over a year after his recapture in a seedy motel in the the city of Los Mochis – an arrest which Mexican authorities say came about after federal agents trailed the actor Sean Penn to a clandestine meeting with the fugitive kingpin.
According to the Associated Press, the US Drug Enforcement Administration took custody of Guzmán in the border town of Ciudad Juárez, before putting him on a plane for the US.
Guzmán faces the possibility of life in a US prison under multiple indictments in six jurisdictions around the US, including New York, San Diego, Chicago and Miami.
Former officials who helped spearhead the US’s drug war told the Guardian the extradition appeared to be a gift from President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government to Donald Trump, who will be sworn in as the US president on Friday.
“This is Mexico’s inaugural present, just like when Iran freed the hostages during President Reagan’s inauguration,” said Robert Feitel, a Washington-based attorney who pursued traffickers and money launderers at the Department of Justice. “It’s the same kind of political posturing.”
Bonnie Klapper, a former assistant US attorney who prosecuted drug lords, said the timing suggested an attempt to soften Trump’s combative approach to Mexico. “It could well be Mexico’s attempt to curry favour. Mexico has been greatly destabilised by Trump’s statements.”
Both former officials said the extradition was important politically and symbolically but would not affect the so-called drug war. “The message [is] that one is untouchable. But will it have any lasting effect? No. Colombia’s current coca crop is the largest in history,” said Klapper.
Feitel said the extradition would have “zero to negligible” impact on the drug war. “He’s just one guy in a much larger series of cartels.”
Mexico’s attorney general’s office denied the extradition had anything to do with the timing of Trump’s inauguration, insisting it instead coincided with court decisions. “It was resolved and in the terms of the international treaty, we had to immediately do the handover of a person requested by the United States government,” assistant attorney general Alberto Elias Beltrán told reporters.
A federal indictment in the eastern district of New York, where Guzmán is expected to be prosecuted, accuses him of overseeing a trafficking cartel with thousands of members and billions of dollars in profits laundered in Mexico and the US. It says Guzmán and other commanders of the Sinaloa cartel employed hitmen who conspired to commit murder, torture and kidnapping.
In a statement, the US justice department said that Guzmán faced six separate indictments throughout the United States.
“The justice department extends its gratitude to the government of Mexico for their extensive cooperation and assistance in securing the extradition of Guzmán Loera to the United States,” the statement said.
Klapper, who helped dismantle Colombia’s Norte del Valle cartel, said Mexico’s violence could turn even bloodier. “Whenever the US captures or extradites someone major there’s always a turf battle. Sometimes what we get after is worse because the various groups have splintered. And some are not as sophisticated and so are more violent.”
Pat Murphy, a Catholic priest who runs a shelter in Tijuana, said that since Guzmán’s capture last year violence had surged in Guerrero and other Mexican states, forcing many families to flee north.
Guzmán’s extradition comes the night before the inauguration of Donald Trump, who campaigned on an agenda of hostility towards Mexico – which has worked more closely with the United States on security matters over the past decade.
The man known as “El Chapo” – “Shorty” for his diminutive stature – cut a larger than life figure in Mexico: the Sinaloa Cartel played a major role in the escalation of the country’s drug war, which has cost the lives of more than 200,000 people.
But he also earned a grudging respect for his brazen prison breaks which humiliated two governments, and his success at eluding federal forces while on the run. In his native state of Sinaloa, he is often portrayed as a Robin Hood-like figure who rose from a childhood of poverty to oversee one of the world’s most expansive criminal empires.
His Sinaloa cartel transported tons of drugs from the Andean region to the United States and even dug tunnels to move merchandise across the border.
Guzmán escaped from the Puente Grande prison in the Guadalajara area in 2001, but was recaptured in 2015 – only to abscond from a maximum security facility six months later.
That escape, through a sophisticated tunnel constructed with the apparent collusion of prison officers, dealt a humiliating blow to the administration of Peña Nieto, which initially resisted attempts to extradite the cartel boss.
While on the lam, Guzman made contact with the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who had previously made public expressions of support for the cartel leader. She planned to produce a biopic of Guzmán, but was unaware that Mexican intelligence agents were monitoring her meetings with his lawyers.
In turn, Del Castillo organised a rendezvous with Guzmán and the actor Sean Penn who later described the meeting in an article for Rolling Stone.
Shortly afterwards, navy marines recaptured Guzmán who was returned to the same prison he had escaped from in July 2015.
El Chapo was kept under constant surveillance, and his family complained that his health was suffering because guards would wake him every few hours.
Klapper and Feitel, who jumped the fence and now defend alleged drug traffickers, said Guzmán would probably spend the rest of his life in jail even if he tried to cut a deal.
“From the conversations I’ve had with prosecutors on the case, he’s [considered] too big and too bad,” said Klapper, who as an assistant district attorney worked in the New York office which will lead the prosecution.
He might, however, be able to negotiate a deal for better jail conditions and relocation and protection for his family, said Klapper.
David Agren and Rory Carroll
Photo: Eduardo Verdugo/AP