‘El Chapo’ vexes Mexico, US

‘El Chapo’ vexes Mexico, US
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It could be years before Mexico is able to follow through on its promise to extradite notorious narcotrafficker Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to the United States.

Quick movements to begin the extradition process over the weekend appeared to indicate that Guzmán would be in an American prison in coming weeks.


But the Mexican judicial system has a lengthy and winding process for challenging extraditions, and Guzmán’s defense lawyer has also reportedly promised a “tough” legal fight.

It could be “at least a year” — and perhaps as long as six years — before he crosses the U.S.’s southern border, the head of Mexico’s extradition office, Jose Manuel Merino, told Radio Fórmula on Monday.

“The extradition won’t go smoothly,” predicted Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “There will be many obstacles in the judicial system and there are many mechanisms that Chapo can exploit not to be extradited.”

The defense team for the leader of the Sinaloa cartel will present initial arguments to oppose extradition this week, followed by supporting evidence in the weeks that follow. 

For the U.S., the pending extradition is a vindication.

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto rebuffed American efforts to imprison Guzmán in the U.S. when he was last arrested in 2014, appearing to treat the imprisonment as a matter of sovereign pride.

Mexico’s willingness to extradite Guzmán comes with the recognition of the failings in its own justice system. After the 2014 arrest, Guzmán escaped last summer through an elaborate tunnel that led directly from his cell to a construction site a mile away.  

“His escape was such an embarrassment, and really damaged Mexico’s image, that they decided that this time they better extradite him,” said Eric Olson, the associate director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’s Latin American program. “While they’re not directly admitting they can’t imprison him, there’s a subtle implication that he’s so powerful that they need to get him out of the country or else he’ll escape again.”

Multiple American voices were quick to call for a speedy extradition in the days after news broke of Guzmán’s capture Friday.

But on Monday, the Obama administration declined to pressure Mexico, perhaps wary of a backlash.

Mexico and other Latin American countries have traditionally bristled at the appearance of being bullied by the U.S.

American officials have “made our concerns known to Mexican authorities about the dangers posed by this particular individual,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Monday.

“I think it’s safe to assume and for me to tell you that they understand that the world is watching how this case moves forward,” he added, “and that this individual needs to stay behind bars.”

In the meantime, there’s no guarantee that Guzmán won’t break free again, which would be his third escape from a maximum security prison.

The pressure on Mexico to secure Guzmán is sure to be higher than ever before. Letting the drug lord slip away for a third time would be devastating to Peña Nieto’s administration.

“But it’s always a possibility,” said Olson. “Because his wealth, his tentacles into the government — into government agencies — are so extensive that that he has the wherewithal to do almost anything.”

It took El Chapo just 17 months after he was imprisoned in 2014 to escape last summer from the same Altiplano maximum security prison that he returned to this weekend.

Guzmán’s arrest on Friday was aided by his push for a movie about his life, officials say.

On Saturday, Rolling Stone published a rambling account of actor Sean Penn’s secret meeting with Guzmán last October. The story traced Penn’s elaborate, 14-hour journey from Los Angeles to a remote jungle clearing where he and popular Mexican actress Kate del Castillo had dinner with Guzmán. Guzmán had reached out to Castillo to have his life made into a movie, according to Penn.

It’s unclear to what extent U.S. and Mexican intelligence officials were aware of or involved with the meeting, though it did not seem to have caught them completely by surprise.

The Mexican newspaper El Universal on Monday published a handful of images that appear to show Penn and Castillo arriving at an airport and meeting an associate of Guzmán’s. The newspaper claimed that the pictures were taken by intelligence officials.

Mexican authorities closed in on Guzmán shortly after the October meeting between the Hollywood star and the globe’s most famous drug trafficker, but Guzmán slipped through their clutches until Friday.

Many figures in the U.S. were quick to scold Penn, who has previously inflamed critics by meeting with late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

The National Republican Congressional Committee called for Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) to return the $17,600 that Penn contributed to his election campaign in 2012 and 2014. 

Penn and Castillo are reportedly under investigation for their communication with El Chapo, and the two could be brought in for questioning. 

But a bigger threat may come from Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel.

There remains the possibility, slim as it may be, that the two actors were secretly informing officials in the U.S. and Mexico about Guzmán’s movements to aid in his eventual arrest.

“If there was ever a sense that the actors betrayed Chapo, then their lives and the lives of their families would be jeopardized,” said Felbab-Brown of Brookings.

“They might die very gruesome, painful deaths.”

Updated at 8:17 p.m.