Mexico makes clear it's keeping Guzman; experts say that could hurt fight to dismantle cartel

The Associated Press

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman sits inside a federal police helicopter at a navy hanger in Mexico City, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. The world's most-wanted drug lord, Guzman, arrived at the Mexico City airport after his arrest early Saturday and was being taken directly to prison, said Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

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By MICHAEL WEISSENSTEIN and E. EDUARDO CASTILLO, Associated Press

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico made clear Tuesday it is determined to keep Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in its highest-security prison for the foreseeable future, putting off U.S. extradition in a move that could bolster President Enrique Pena Nieto's nationalist credentials but also shine a spotlight on the country's woeful judicial system.

Experts say Pena Nieto's administration and those of his predecessors have proven unable to match headline-grabbing arrests like Guzman's with complex, long-term investigations and prosecutions of deep-rooted criminal networks. Cases have stalled and cartels have continued to operate. Last year, one of Guzman's closest allies walked out of the prison where the U.S. said he was running drugs from behind bars.

The Mexican government says there is no way Guzman will repeat the 2001 escape that let him roam western Mexico for 13 years as he moved billions of dollars of cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin around the world. Authorities here say they want to be the first to interrogate Guzman, and use the information to dismantle his Sinaloa cartel, a multibillion-dollar enterprise that dominates drug trafficking in much of Mexico and stretches into 54 countries.

Two federal judges ruled Tuesday that Guzman will have to stand trial on separate drug-trafficking and organized-crime charges in Mexico. And the Pena Nieto administration said the man widely considered the world's most-powerful drug lord until his capture Saturday will face at least six other pending criminal cases before it even considers extraditing him to the U.S.

"I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon," Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said in a radio interview. "This is the start of a full investigation that will allow us to fully eradicate his organization. It would be pointless to do anything else."

But experts on both sides of the border warned that keeping Guzman in Mexican hands could squander the opportunity to exploit his unparalleled knowledge of the country's biggest drug cartel. U.S. prosecutors have proven far more capable of offering captured drug lords the incentives to cooperate with law enforcement, experts said.

U.S. officials routinely use family members as tools to pressure defendants into giving up information, granting visas to relatives of cooperative prisoners while threatening to leave loved ones penniless by freezing assets of drug lords who refuse to play ball.

Mexican authorities arrested Guzman, 56, along with his 20-something former beauty-queen wife and twin toddlers, but let her go because there were no charges pending against her. Observers called it a staggering missed opportunity that wouldn't have occurred in the U.S.

"The U.S. attorneys have many tools. They're pretty good at flipping people. They can offer far more things than the Mexican authorities can offer," said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former official in Mexico's domestic intelligence service. "Right now the challenge is just to keep him in prison. That would be success enough. I don't think he's going to provide too much information."

One of Guzman's closest allies and mentors, Rafael Caro Quintero, walked out of a federal prison in August after a procedural ruling that cut 12 years off a 40-year sentence for killings that included the murder of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena. A three-judge federal appeals court in the western state of Jalisco found that he should have been tried in state, not federal, court, and vacated his sentence in a ruling widely seen by Mexican and U.S. officials as inexplicable and likely corrupt.

Months earlier, the U.S. Treasury Department blacklisted more than two dozen people and companies that belonged to what it called a drug-running and money-laundering network that Caro Quintero ran years from behind bars.