El Chapo Extradited To U.S….AND MORE

MEXICO CITY — Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the notorious drug lord known as El Chapo who twice slipped out of high-security Mexican prisons and into criminal legend, was extradited to the United States on Thursday night, officials said, drawing to a close a decades-long quest to prosecute the head of one of the world’s largest narcotics organizations.

A federal court in Mexico denied an appeal by Mr. Guzmán’s lawyers to block the extradition, clearing the way for his transfer to the American authorities in New York, where he faces numerous charges for his role as the chieftain of the Sinaloa cartel. Mr. Guzmán was put on a plane on Thursday in Ciudad Juárez, near the border with Texas, and arrived in the United States on President Obama’s final night in office.

According to a Justice Department statement late Thursday, he was flown to Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip, N.Y.

The decision to extradite Mr. Guzmán was an about-face for the Mexican government, which once claimed that he would serve his long sentence in Mexico first. However, after his Houdini-like escape in 2015, when his associates tunneled him out of Mexico’s most secure prison, officials began to reconsider.

When he was recaptured early last year, after one of Mexico’s most exhaustive manhunts, the government publicly said it would allow the extradition of Mr. Guzmán, thus relieving itself of the potential embarrassment of another escape and preventing further souring of its relationship with the United States.

Mr. Guzmán’s extradition came suddenly, after nearly a year of appeals and legal procedures. Even his own lawyer was surprised. In an interview after the announcement by the Mexican government, the lawyer, José Refugio Rodríguez, said he had only just learned about the extradition. Indeed, he was at the prison where Mr. Guzmán was being held, planning to see his client, when it was locked down for two hours.

“I was supposed to visit him today,” he said. “I know nothing of this.”

An American law enforcement official said the United States authorities had not known that the Mexicans were about to hand over Mr. Guzmán until late Thursday afternoon. The official, who requested anonymity to discuss the case, said the “guesstimate” was that the timing of the extradition was “politically motivated.” The official did not elaborate.

Mr. Guzmán — whose nickname, El Chapo, means “Shorty” — was a major trophy for law enforcement officials in both countries. Over the years, as the drug trade blossomed into a multibillion-dollar industry, he became much more than a mere trafficker. As a farm-boy-turned-billionaire with a flair for the dramatic, he became a symbol of Mexico’s broken rule of law, America’s narcotics obsession and the failure of both nations’ drug wars.

And yet, amid the anguish caused by Mr. Guzmán — the trail of blood left by his henchmen across swaths of Mexico; the addiction crisis fueled by his networks in America — his legend only seemed to grow. In Mexico, he became a folk hero to the masses. In Sinaloa, tales of Mr. Guzmán’s handing out freebies to the poor and covering checks for diners in the restaurants he frequented are commonplace.

But his daring escapes cemented his reputation as an outlaw.

Mr. Guzmán first managed to break out of a prison in 2001 — according to some accounts, by hiding in a laundry cart. In the ensuing years, while on the run, he seemed always just out of the grasp of the authorities, slipping into secret passages beneath bathtubs or absconding seconds before federal raids.

The fascination with Mr. Guzmán stemmed from the fact that one could never really count him out. He perfected the escape hatch, the underground tunnel and the trap door — all tools he used to evade law enforcement during his years on the run, which ended with an arrest in 2014. He sent his engineers to Germany for training, then dispatched them to his homes, where they would outfit closets, bathrooms and refrigerators with secret exits.

A pioneer of the cross-border tunnel, used to shuttle tens of thousands of tons of drugs into America, he ultimately adapted those feats of secret underground engineering for his escape from the Altiplano prison: a maximum-security facility in the State of Mexico where he lived in isolation, under 24-hour surveillance by a camera in his cell.

On the night of July 11, 2015, shortly before 9 p.m., Mr. Guzmán stepped into his shower and passed through a small hole in its floor, positioned in the camera’s one blind spot. From there, he descended into a mile-long tunnel, equipped with a motorcycle on rails, and raced to freedom.

His escape was a stinging embarrassment for the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto, which had trumpeted his capture as a crucial victory in its bloody campaign against the narcotics trade.

Again a fugitive, Mr. Guzmán found the time to rendezvous with film stars, including Sean Penn, to discuss a biopic about his life. But his freedom was short-lived. After a manhunt that involved more than 2,500 people, he was seized in the town of Los Mochis in early 2016 after crawling out of a sewer.

Once he was back in prison, many worried that he would escape once more, prompting the authorities to rotate him from cell to cell and, eventually, to send him up north, to the border with Texas.

The general belief is that, in the United States, El Chapo’s antics will be much harder to pull off. Though his reputation may not diminish, his chances of escape, or acquittal, are drastically lower there, experts say.

Mr. Guzmán faces charges stemming from six separate indictments in the United States. In the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn, where he is expected to face prosecution, he is charged with the manufacture and distribution of a range of drugs, the use of firearms, money laundering and running an ongoing criminal enterprise. The indictment, first filed in 2009, has been updated three times since then.

In a statement on Thursday night, the United States Justice Department said it extended “its gratitude to the government of Mexico for their extensive cooperation and assistance in securing the extradition of Guzmán Loera to the United States.”

In ridding itself of Mr. Guzmán, the Mexican government has lifted at least one giant weight from its shoulders: that of keeping and successfully prosecuting the notorious escape artist. He is departing, however, at a time of deep political unrest in the country, as protests over an increase in gasoline prices continue and corruption scandals, as well as rising crime, nag at the nation’s image.

The American president-elect, Donald J. Trump, has made threatening Mexico over trade and immigration a center of his platform. It is unclear whether the decision to extradite Mr. Guzmán the day before Mr. Trump’s inauguration was connected in any way with the hostile tone the president-elect has adopted toward Mexico.

“The fact that we delivered him to Obama is a clear political message that says this is a government we have long collaborated and worked closely with,” said Jorge Chabat, an expert on security at CIDE, a Mexico City research institution. “By not waiting to send him to Trump after his inauguration, it is a subtle statement saying, ‘We could do this for you, too, in the future, if we have a good relationship.’”

“If not, there won’t be any other powerful narco traffickers extradited,” he said.

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