What recapturing 'El Chapo' means for US-Mexico relations
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On Jan. 8, the Mexican federal police and the Mexican Navy recaptured Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán in Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico. Just six months before, on July 11, 2015, he had fled a Mexican federal prison, presumably through a tunnel built from the prison to a house about a mile away. Guzmán's escape from prison was a national and international embarrassment to the Enrique Peña Nieto administration, and it irked American law enforcement agencies, which have asked for Guzmán's extradition to the United States almost as soon as he was caught on Feb. 22, 2014. For now, both American and Mexican law enforcement agencies are basking in this new "blow" to the Sinaloa Cartel, the single most powerful drug trafficking organization between the two countries and beyond.

But what does recapturing Guzmán mean for the U.S.-Mexico relationship? Rough times ahead. And here is why:

American law enforcement is already itching to make effective their extradition request. They are right in doing so, as Guzmán has already been captured three times and has managed to escape from maximum security prison twice. To U.S. law enforcement, that is enough to argue that it is better to send him to the U.S. quickly and close the door on that chapter. But it may not be that simple.


Guzmán’s lawyers are already filing "amparos" — injunctions and appeals — before Mexican federal judges to stop his extradition. The Mexican government may choose to send him quickly and skip all the niceties of due process, but he does have the right to a due process, even when the Mexican executive branch would prefer to get rid of him quickly. The last time Guzmán was in prison, between February 2014 and July 2015, his lawyers continually filed injunctions and appeals and made the process of extradition difficult until he eventually broke out of prison. If this happens again, it is not likely to go well with American law enforcement who are waiting to get their hands on him. And that is the other big problem for the Mexican government.

If Guzmán is extradited, and if his lawyers in the U.S. begin bargaining with law enforcement, he can provide a huge trove of information on the Sinaloa Cartel, but also on Mexican politicians, entrepreneurs and law enforcement officers who have collaborated with him over many years. No one, perhaps, knows more about the innards of corruption in Mexico than Guzmán, and he might have much to say about it. Even so, he may not talk, but if he does, the Mexican government may yet be forced to get serious about the nexus between organized crime and the political and entrepreneurial class in Mexico — something that the Peña Nieto administration has been reluctant to do, although it has been criticized far and wide for it, most recently in The New York Times.

Moreover, it is now likely that Guzmán is a dispensable capo in the Sinaloa Cartel. Though still a key figure and very important in the history of drug trafficking between the two countries, he has probably handed down control of his organization to his lieutenants and his family. He is probably not in control of it any longer. We can deduce that from the fact that the Sinaloa Cartel functioned quite well while he was in federal prison in Mexico. Also, the Sinaloa Cartel has proven to be the most resilient, adaptable and flexible of all drug trafficking organizations in Mexico. It not only resisted the onslaught of U.S. and Mexican efforts in the bloody 2006-12 drug war period in Mexico — unlike the Tijuana, Juárez and Gulf cartels, which were substantially weakened, and Los Zetas, which was nearly obliterated — but it emerged unscathed and more than likely stronger. It has, in fact, expanded its operations to at least 10 countries and may no longer be a purely Mexican organization but a truly transnational group with tentacles in many different places in the Western Hemisphere and beyond.

That cannot escape American authorities who are eager to get their hands on him before the more actionable intelligence becomes obsolete. Thus, if the Mexican government refuses to act quickly on his extradition, American law enforcement is likely to be chagrined once again, although they would not risk cooperation with the Mexican government by making this public.

Thus, the saga of Guzmán’s third capture in 13 years has barely begun, and it may be a turning point in U.S.-Mexico law enforcement cooperation. It may go well if the two countries can agree on a critical route to get him to the United States, or it could go very sour if the Peña Nieto administration insists in demonstrating that the Mexican government should retain him in Mexico and show that it can indeed not just recapture him, but hold him.

Payan, Ph.D., is director of the Mexico Center at Rice University's Baker Institute. He is the editor of "Undecided Nation: Political Gridlock and the Immigration Crisis."