Officials said the process to extradite Joaquín Guzmán could take months, and his lawyers are expected to fight it.
MEXICO CITY — After long resisting U.S. requests, the Mexican government is moving toward extraditing Joaquín Guzmán, the Mexican drug lord known as “El Chapo,” to the United States to face drug and murder charges there, Mexican officials said Saturday.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the process could take months as it goes through the judicial system. On Saturday, the attorney general of Mexico, Arely Gómez, said for the first time that the government took preliminary steps to proceed with Guzmán’s extradition as far back as July, shortly after his escape from prison.
His lawyers are expected to fight extradition to the United States, where he faces at least seven indictments in federal courts on charges including drug trafficking and murder.
A spokesman for President Enrique Peña Nieto declined to comment, and it remained possible the government would stick to its longstanding refusal to send Guzmán to the United States until he first serves time in Mexico.
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Guzmán, who escaped from prison last year, was captured Friday after a gunbattle at a home near the coast in his home state, Sinaloa. After an intense gunfight in Los Mochis, he was captured attempting to flee in a vehicle with one of his top lieutenants.
After his capture, the head of the powerful Sinaloa cartel was brought to Mexico City’s airport, marched to a helicopter before news media and flown back to the same prison he’d fled.
It turns out that it wasn’t exhaustive detective work or sophisticated intelligence that exposed Guzmán’s whereabouts.
It was ego and a chance at Hollywood: Guzmán was sure he had a story worthy of Hollywood gold. The uneducated son of a farmer who became a cartel kingpin, married a beauty-queen wife and made two Houdini-like escapes from prison wanted to make his own biopic.
So after his July 11 escape from the maximum-security wing of Mexico’s most secure prison, he instructed his people to get in touch with actresses and producers. But his rags-to-riches film ambitions attracted law enforcement’s attention.
Guzmán “established communication with actors and producers, which has formed a new line of investigation,” Gómez said at a news conference.
Gómez said authorities were also able to track Guzman’s meetings with lawyers and other associates and were close to capturing him in October. He had been seen from a helicopter, she said, but was accompanied by two women and a child, and so security forces decided not to engage him.
Gómez also gave new details about his escape in July, saying his brother-in-law, two pilots and tunnel engineers were involved. Once he made it through the tunnel, on a motorcycle speeding over specially built rails, he was whisked to an airfield, where his airplane and a decoy took off in the night.
Extraditing Guzmán would be an about-face for the government, which has resisted efforts to extradite the drug lord as a matter of sovereignty. Guzmán, head of the Sinaloa cartel, would first serve his time in Mexico before he was sent to the United States, officials said.
Almost exactly one year ago, Jesús Murillo Karam, the Mexican attorney general at the time, said: “I can accept extradition, but when I say so. ‘El Chapo’ has to stay here and do his time, then I’ll extradite him. Some 300, 400 years later. That’s a lot of time.”
Then Guzmán escaped under the noses of guards and prison officials at Mexico’s most secure lockup, slipping out an elaborate tunnel that showed the depth of the country’s corruption while thoroughly embarrassing Peña Nieto’s administration.
He also escaped from a different maximum-security facility in 2001 while serving a 20-year sentence. Folklore says he hid in a laundry cart, though many dispute that version. He spent 13 years on the lam.
Even if the government has come around to the idea of extradition, the legal process could take many months. Guzmán’s lawyers have already filed motions to block any extradition, dating from his last imprisonment in 2014, and the process must go through the judicial system.
“It is not merely a matter of an executive decision,” one of the officials said.
For now, though, the attorney general’s office appeared prepared to press on with the early steps leading to extradition. Noting the efforts by Guzman’s lawyers to file injunctions, a statement from the office Saturday noted that none of them “prevents the execution of these orders, much less the start of the extradition procedure.”
The United States has made several extradition requests for Guzmán, and officials are hopeful he may be sent to the U.S., a Justice Department official said Saturday. But the department has not received any definite commitment, the official said.
“Is it possible? Yes,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But I have not heard anything definitive.”