MEXICO CITY (AP) – Mexico is willing to extradite drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to the United States, a federal law enforcement official said Saturday, a sharp reversal from the official position after his last capture in 2014.
“Mexico is ready. There are plans to cooperate with the U.S.,” said the Mexican official, who spoke on condition anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to comment.
But he cautioned that there could be a lengthy wait before U.S. prosecutors can get their hands on Guzman, the most-wanted trafficker who was recaptured Friday after six months on the run: “You have to go through the judicial process, and the defense has its elements too.”
Top officials in the party of President Enrique Pena Nieto also floated the idea of extradition, which they had flatly ruled out before Guzman’s embarrassing escape from Mexico’s top maximum security prison on July 11 – his second from a Mexican prison.
“He has a lot of outstanding debts to pay in Mexico, but if it’s necessary, he can pay them in other places,” said Manlio Fabio Beltrones, president of Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party.
But even if Mexican officials agree, Guzman’s attorney Juan Pablo Badillo told the Milenio newspaper that the defense already has filed six motions to challenge extradition requests.
“They can challenge the judge, challenge the probable cause, challenge the procedure,” said Juan Masini, former U.S. Department of Justice attache at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico. “That’s why it can take a long time. They won’t challenge everything at once … they can drip, drip, milk it that way.”
Guzman, a legendary figure in Mexico who went from being a farmer’s son to the world’s top drug lord, was apprehended after a shootout between gunmen and Mexican marines at a home in Los Mochis, a seaside city in Guzman’s home state of Sinaloa. Five suspects were killed and six others arrested. One marine was injured.
The operation resulted from six months of investigation by Mexican forces, who located Guzman in a rural part of Durango state in October but decided not to shoot because he was with two women and a child, said Mexican Attorney General Arely Gomez.
Following his capture, the head of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel was brought to Mexico City’s airport, frog-marched to a helicopter before news media, and flown back to the same prison he’d fled.
There were immediately calls for his quick extradition, just as there were after the February 2014 capture of Guzman, who faces drug-trafficking charges in several U.S. states. At the time, Mexico’s government insisted it could handle the man who had already broken out of one maximum-security prison, saying he must pay his debt to Mexican society first.
Then-Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said the extradition would happen only after he finished his sentence in Mexico in “300 or 400 years.”
Then Guzman escaped on July 11 under the noses of guards and prison officials at Mexico’s most secure lock-up, slipping out an elaborate tunnel that showed the depth of the country’s corruption while thoroughly embarrassing Pena Nieto’s administration.
He also escaped a different maximum-security facility in 2001 while serving a 20-year sentence. Lore says he hid in a laundry cart, though many dispute that version. He spent 13 years on the lam.
Gomez said that one of Guzman’s key tunnel builders led officials to the neighborhood in Los Mochis, where authorities had been watching for a month. The team noticed a lot of activity at the house Wednesday and the arrival of a car early Thursday morning. Authorities were able to determine that Guzman was inside the house, she said.
The marines were met with gunfire as they closed in.
Gomez said Guzman and his security chief, “El Cholo” Ivan Gastelum, were able to flee via storm drains and escape through a manhole cover to the street, where they commandeered getaway cars. Marines climbed into the drains in pursuit. They closed in on the two men based on reports of stolen vehicles and they were arrested on the highway.
What happens now is crucial for Guzman, whose cartel smuggles multi-ton shipments of cocaine and marijuana as well as manufacturing and transporting methamphetamines and heroin, mostly to the U.S.
According to a statement from the Mexican Attorney General’s office, the U.S. filed extradition requests June 25, while Guzman was in custody, and another Sep. 3, after he escaped. The Mexican government determined they were valid within the extradition treaty and sent them to a panel of federal judges, who gave orders for detention on July 29 and Sept. 8, after Guzman had escaped.
Those orders were not for extradition but just for Guzman to begin the extradition hearing process. Now that he is recapture, Mexico has to start processing the extradition requests anew, according to the law.
The quickest he could be extradited would be six months, said a federal official who spoke on condition of anonymity, but it’s not likely because lawyers file appeals. He said that they are usually turned down, but each one means a judge has to schedule a hearing.
“That can take weeks or months, and that delays the extradition,” he said. “We’ve had cases that take six years.”
The attorney general’s office noted that Guzman’s lawyers have already filed various appeals, some overruled and some still pending.
“He shouldn’t be extradited to the United States or any other foreign country,” Guzman’s lawyer, Badillo, said Saturday. “Mexico has laws grounded in the constitution. Our country must respect national sovereignty, the sovereignty of its institutions to impart justice.”
Badillo said several months ago that the extradition requests from the U.S. were the reason Guzman escaped.
His second escape last year was even more audacious. He fled down a hole in his shower stall in plain view of guards into a mile-long tunnel dug from a property outside the prison. The tunnel had ventilation, lights and a motorbike on rails. Construction noise as a digger broke through from the tunnel to his cell was obvious inside the prison, according a video of Guzman in his cell just before he escaped.
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Los Mochis, Maria Verza in Mexico City and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.
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