At the height of their power in the 1980s, Colombian drug lords had a saying: Better to be in a grave in Colombia than in a prison cell in the United States. This is an adage that Mexican officials should keep in mind now that Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera — also known as El Chapo — was captured late last week.
Guzmán’s arrest should have been a cause for celebration in Mexico, but instead it was generally greeted with cynicism from a citizenry whose justice system has been compromised by the drug trade. Guzmán already escaped prison once, and there’s little reason to think that, this time, he will be held more securely — or prevented from managing his cartel from his cell.
The US criminal justice system provides a better venue for trying Guzmán. He is wanted in several US jurisdictions, and the federal Justice Department should work hard to have him extradited from Mexico. Bringing Guzmán to the United States for trial could have a profound impact in dismantling his Sinaloa cartel and could help reduce the flow of drugs across the border.
Swift extradition is unlikely, however. Aside from the new charges facing him in Mexico, his 12-year sentence there remains in force; he still has three years to serve. In 2001, he famously escaped from a maximum-security prison, presumably in a laundry cart. It is said that his escape was spurred precisely by extradition fears. It is also believed that Guzmán was running his cartel from his Mexican prison cell while also controlling the actual prison.
Many in Mexico argue that having him tried there is a matter of national pride, but neither the Mexican government nor the United States can afford to risk yet another escape or have him continue to run his organization from inside a Mexican prison.
Gang-related violence has left nearly 80,000 people dead in Mexico over the past seven years. The Sinaloa cartel is reportedly responsible for a quarter of the drugs consumed in the United States, and about 80 percent in cities like Chicago. Guzmán has already been indicted in US federal district courts in several states, including New York, Texas, and Illinois, where the Chicago Crime Commission named him the city’s Public Enemy Number One — a distinction held previously only by Al Capone.
US and Mexican authorities have a rare opportunity now that El Chapo has been recaptured. Extradition of Colombian drug lords proved to be an effective tool against those cartels, ultimately undermining the Medellín and Cali cartels by disrupting organized crime there about two decades ago. Guzmán’s lawyers wasted no time filing motions to block extradition. It’s no wonder. It’s what he fears the most — and what would strike the most powerful blow to the flow of drugs in the United States.