Drug lord 'El Chapo' Guzman charged inside Mexican prison, swift extradition to US unlikely

The Associated Press

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted to a helicopter in handcuffs by Mexican navy marines at a navy hanger in Mexico City, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. A senior U.S. law enforcement official said Saturday, that Guzman, the head of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel, was captured alive overnight in the beach resort town of Mazatlan. Guzman faces multiple federal drug trafficking indictments in the U.S. and is on the Drug Enforcement Administration's most-wanted list. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

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By MARK STEVENSON, ALICIA A. CALDWELL and ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON, Associated Press

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexican authorities have set in motion a legal process that makes it unlikely drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman will soon face U.S. cases also pending against him.

The Federal Judicial Council said the hemisphere's most powerful drug lord had been formally charged under a 2009 Mexican indictment for cocaine trafficking, an action that could start put him on path for a trial that would put any extradition request on the back burn.

A judge has until Tuesday to decide whether a trial is warranted. Guzman, who is being held in a maximum security prison west of Mexico City, could then appeal the judge's decision, a process that typically takes weeks or months.

Also on Monday, Guzman's lawyers filed a petition asking a court for an injunction to block any extradition request from the United States. In the past, similar appeals by other drug suspects have taken months, and sometimes years, to resolve.

And before considering any extradition request that might come from the U.S., Mexican officials also must weigh whether to renew other charges against Guzman. When he escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001 he was serving convictions for criminal association and bribery, and he was awaiting trial on charges of murder and drug trafficking.

What to do with Guzman is a politically sensitive subject for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who has sought to carve out more control over joint anti-drug efforts with the United States. Analysts said his administration is likely torn between the impulse to move Guzman to a nearly invulnerable U.S. facility and the desire to show that Mexico can successful retry and incarcerate the man whose time as the fugitive head of the world's most powerful drug cartel.

Eduardo Sanchez, the presidential spokesman, did not answer his phone or return messages Monday asking whether the government was considering extraditing Guzman to the U.S.

Prominent trial lawyer Juan Velasquez, who has represented former Mexican presidents, said that if the administration did decide to extradite Guzman, legal appeals would only delay the process because Mexico has removed obstacles to sending its citizens for trial in other countries.

"If the United States asks for a Mexican to be extradited, that Mexican, sooner rather than later, will wind up extradited," said Velasquez, who is not involved in the Guzman case.

U.S. Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said Monday that extradition "will be the subject of further discussion between the United States and Mexico."

And before making an extradition request, the U.S. government has to sort out where it would want to try Guzman, who faces charges in at least seven U.S. jurisdictions.

"You want number one to be the best shot that you have," said David Weinstein, a former assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Florida in Miami who helped prosecute several high-profile suspected drug traffickers in his 11 years in the office. "What do they say? If you shoot at the king, you make sure you hit him in the head."

Many in Mexico see extradition as the best way to punish Guzman and break up his empire, given the United States' more certain legal system and better investigation capacities.

"The only option that would allow for dismantling this criminal network is extradition, and that's unfortunate," said Edgardo Buscaglia, an expert on the cartel and a senior research scholar at Colombia University. "Because, in the end, extraditions are an escape valve for Mexico," which has been slow to improve its own investigative police, prosecution and court system.

Security expert Jorge Chabat said, "If he stays in Mexico there are risks he could escape or continue to control his criminal organization from inside prison."

That is not a far-fetched possibility. Velasquez, the trial lawyer, said some Mexican defense attorneys who get involved in such cases often act as messengers for their clients.