Kingpin ‘El Chapo’ Recaptured, Extradition Debate Looms
By Sylvia Longmire
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Editor’s note: Sylvia appeared on CNN on Jan. 9, and spoke about the recapture of ‘El Chapo.’
After seven months of intense searching, Mexican authorities have finally recaptured fugitive drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán in the coastal city of Los Mochis in Sinaloa state. Guzmán has been the leader of the notorious Sinaloa cartel for decades, and has escaped maximum security prison facilities in Mexico twice—most recently in July 2015. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was not inclined to extradite Guzmán after he was captured in February 2014 following seven years of being on the run. However, current circumstances may see Peña Nieto experiencing a change of heart.
Extradition is the official process through which one country transfers a suspected or convicted criminal to another country. This process tends to be different for every pair of countries that enter into an extradition treaty. In the case of Mexico and the U.S., extradition proceedings have historically been somewhat tricky and occasionally quite tense. Mexico’s justice system is widely considered inept, and prison escapes are unacceptably common. Even if prisoners do remain jailed, high-ranking drug traffickers are often treated like kings behind bars. Extraditing such individuals to face U.S. charges and incarceration seems more just, but it is accompanied by the unspoken admission by the Mexican government that it can’t properly prosecute or keep criminals behind bars.
Mexico also has certain conditions written into the treaty that prevent extraditions to the U.S.—most notably the requirement that capital punishment cannot be an option during legal proceedings in the U.S. In October 2001, Mexico’s Supreme Court also ruled that life in prison, or any term without guaranteed parole, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under Mexico’s constitution.
Historically, this hasn’t come into play very much with Mexican drug traffickers, despite the fact that most have been accused of murder or kidnapping in Mexico. U.S. charges tend to be related to drug trafficking and money laundering, and most traffickers enter in to plea deals in which they offer intelligence to law enforcement agencies in exchange for a reduced sentence. Depending on the threat they pose, many Mexican drug lords then serve their time in maximum security federal prisons. Some of the most well known cartel VIPs are currently serving their time in the highest-security facility known as Supermax in Florence, Colorado.
Despite the assurances of transparency and security that come with extraditing a drug trafficker to the U.S., the Mexican government has had its reasons for refusing to do so in the past. Top Beltrán Leyva Organization operative Edgar “La Barbie” Valdez Villarreal was arrested in Mexico in 2010 and tried to shop around his intel in exchange for a lesser sentence without any success. He was finally extradited to the U.S. to face drug trafficking charges—along with 12 other high-value traffickers—only after Guzmán escaped from prison in July 2015.
That escape was easily the biggest embarrassment of Peña Nieto’s administration, and one that many believe would have been avoided if he had agreed to extradite El Chapo to the U.S. right after his capture in February 2014. Peña Nieto was very confident at the time that authorities could contain Guzmán, and that police and his guards would not succumb to bribes and threats. Yet, only 14 months after his arrest in Mazatlán, Guzmán escaped through a sophisticated tunnel that contained lighting, ventilation, and even a motorcycle on rails.
Now all eyes will be on Peña Nieto once more, and the pressure to extradite Guzmán immediately to the U.S. will be impossible for him to ignore. It will be an extremely difficult decision for the Mexican President—a de facto acknowledgement that his assessment of the country’s justice and security capabilities was unrealistic. However, Mexico’s security needs to take precedence, and the intelligence Guzmán can provide will likely lead to more arrests, seizures, and successes Peña Nieto can use as salve on his wounded pride.