On the heels of being transferred to a Mexican prison on the U.S. border, drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán has been cleared for extradition to the U.S. by a Mexican judge.
In the U.S., Guzmán would face federal charges of drug trafficking and far slimmer chances of escaping prison, as he has done twice in his home country.
The ruling essentially creates the basis for the Ministry of Foreign Relations in Mexico to grant the final approval for the extradition of Mr. Guzmán within the next 30 days.
“The ball is now in the Foreign Ministry’s court and they have a month to execute the process or not,” said a spokesman for the judiciary in Mexico. “They have been notified and received the file.”
The New York Times reported Monday May 9 that Guzmán’s lawyers were notified of the judge’s decision on the preceeding Friday night, and Mr. Guzmán was told on Sunday, during his transfer to another prison in Ciudad Juárez, which sits along the border with Texas.
“There is nothing, legally speaking that could impede the extradition, from the judicial system point of view,” said the judiciary spokesman, who could not be named because of government policy.
The decision to extradite Mr. Guzmán was made shortly after his recapture in January of this year. Having lost him twice, the government decided that rather than risk a third embarrassment it would hand him over to the United States, where he faces charges in numerous jurisdictions. Convictions would keep him imprisoned for a long time.
But some critics are questioning the motives behind Guzmán’s prison transfer. Mexico’s prison system has been called a “disaster,” and Guzmán has been sent to what is considered the worst lockup in the country.
Guzmán was transferred early Saturday morning to Cefereso No. 9, just outside Ciudad Juarez, which is across the border from El Paso, Texas.
A 2015 report by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission found that Cefereso No. 9 scored 6.63 out of 10 in overall quality, the lowest score of the country’s 21 federal prisons and below the 7.32 score of the 10th-ranked Altiplano prison, where Guzmán was being held before.
The prison — about 14 miles from downtown Ciudad Juarez — had a low score for handling prisoners with special requirements.
One area in which the prison performs well is in “conditions of governability,” which perhaps led to Mexican officials’ assertions that Cefereso No. 9 would hold the kingpin.
The Mexican government said Guzmán was removed from the maximum-security Altiplano prison, from which he escaped in brazen fashion in July before being recaptured in January, to do renovations meant to improve security there, though it may have been in response to a more immediate risk.
“Moving him from one prison to another is one way of delaying any potentially successful escape plans, or they might have had some information that an escape plan had been hatched,” Alejandro Hope, the security and justice editor at El Daily Post, told The Guardian.
Hope has said in the past that Guzmán’s continued presence at Altiplano makes it more likely the conditions that allowed his escape in the past will return.
And Guzmán’s very presence in Chihuahua seems to be a matter of concern.
His Sinaloa cartel recently won a violent struggle over the trafficking corridor running through Ciudad Juarez, and while violence in the city has dropped considerably, it is likely that the cartel still has a significant presence there.
“It just doesn’t make any sense,” Mike Vigil, the former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told the AP on Sunday. “He has that part of his empire, he has the infrastructure there and he has people who would assist him in terms of engineering him another escape.”
Hope echoed that point, telling the AP, “The surrounding environment is risky because ‘El Chapo’ certainly has a lot of people in Ciudad Juarez, so it seems like a relatively odd choice … Probably the other alternatives were not any better, whatever their objective was.”
‘Master of tunnels’
There have also been conflicting messages about whether the transfer was a prelude to Guzmán’s likely extradition to the US.
“Due to the proximity (to the US), it makes it easier to extradite him,” a Mexican law-enforcement official told CNN about the transfer to Ciudad Juarez.
Other authorities told Reuters that the move “was not a preamble to extradition.”
Hope noted that moving Guzmán to Cefereso No. 9 to ease extradition would be strange, as it would be just as easy to fly him from Mexico City, located about 60 miles east of Altiplano prison, as it would be to fly from Juarez.
No details about an escape attempt have emerged, and the efforts of Guzmán’s legal team (which has called the transfer illegal) and past experience suggest that extradition will take more than just a few months.
It’s not yet clear what’s going on, but with Guzmán — nicknamed “the master of tunnels” for his subterranean proclivities — it’s usually more than meets the eye.
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