On the morning of January 8, the Mexican government recaptured fugitive drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and hours later frog-marched him from northwestern Sinaloa state, where he was captured, back to the prison near Mexico City from which he escaped in July (where he will reportedly be even more closely monitored).
But the fight — in court against Guzmán and in the streets against his cartel — is far from over.
The details that have emerged about the extradition case indicate that it could be years before Guzmán faces trial.
‘It’s a very complicated process’
Most observers believe that Guzmán will eventually end up in the US. The key word is eventually, however, as both legal and political processes are likely to delay his extradition.
“The reality is extradition takes a long time. It’s a very complicated process … especially cases like this, where the individual in question has a lot of resources to challenge extradition in court,” David Shirk, University of San Diego professor and director of the school’s Justice in Mexico program, told Business Insider.
“It’s also procedurally quite complex because you’re dealing with law-enforcement agencies, diplomatic agencies, on both sides of the border that are processing these things,” Shirk added.
On January 10, the Mexican government said it activated the extradition process for Guzmán. However, according to a former US federal prosecutor,
the pace of this procedure is still largely up to the Mexican government.
“[Guzmán] has already filed various actions in Mexico to stop his extradition, and I’m sure that some of those are still pending, so the question is whether or not the government is Mexico is going” to let him continue fighting the process, said Marcos Jiménez, a former US attorney for the southern district of Florida.
“They can challenge the judge, challenge the probable cause, challenge the procedure,” said Juan Masini, a former US Department of Justice attache at the US embassy in Mexico.
As of January 11, several of those challenges had paid off, as two judges in Mexico accepted petitions filed by Guzmán’s attorneys, temporarily preventing extradition.
José Manuel Merino, the official in charge of international processes for the Mexican Attorney General’s office, also said on January 11 that the extradition process could take at least a year or more because of such filings.
“If [Guzmán] puts up resistance it could take four to six years,” Manuel Merino added.
There are also political complications that could delay Guzmán’s departure from Mexico.
Some see extradition as interference in domestic affairs, and view the need to send major criminals to another country for trial and incarceration as an affront.
Guzmán’s legal team has played on this, with his attorney Juan Pablo Badillo, an expert on extradition, saying Mexico “must respect national sovereignty, the sovereignty of its institutions to impart justice.”
It’s conceivable, Shirk notes, that President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration could time the proceedings so that he is out of office before any decision has to be made.
“They could basically keep the ball in limbo until the next administration comes in” in late 2018, Shirk said, “and then the next administration would basically be the ones responsible for figuring out what they’re ultimately going to do.”
Moreover, it’s possible that Guzmán’s lawyers and the Mexican government could negotiate and ultimately reach a deal that precludes Guzmán’s extradition in exchange for some information or action that benefits, or perhaps protects, the government, former US attorney Jiménez noted.
“There’s a lot of speculation out there that he’s got a lot of information on corrupt [military] officials,” and other public officials, Jimenez said, but he added that failing to extradite Guzmán at this point could have consequences for Mexico’s relationship with the US.
“… To not extradite him … it’s going to make the Mexican government look pretty bad, at least its going to make them look bad in the eyes of” policymakers and officials in Washington, Jiménez said.
Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel without ‘El Chapo’
Whatever Guzmán’s ultimate fate, it seems that his Sinaloa cartel will remain a threat to the people of the US and Mexico and to their governments, but perhaps for two different reasons.
First, as suggested by Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope, Guzmán’s capture may indicate that the cartel has weakened in recent years, leaving Guzmán without sufficient resources to bribe and influence authorities.
“The organisation probably has fewer informants and collaborators with the federal security apparatus,” Hope wrote in the hours after the arrest. “The result? A less agile response to the moves of his persecutors.”
Don Winslow, an author who has researched Mexico’s drug wars, echoed this suggestion of a loss of influence.
“The most likely scenario [leading to his capture] is that Guzmán had lost the support and confidence of his partners in the cartel, and with it the political influence and power that protected him,” Winslow wrote at CNN.
This loss of control and influence could have ugly consequences.
In the past, the takedown of a cartel leader would lead to violent recriminations, as others within that cartel, as well as rival cartels, jockeyed for position.
That trend has receded in recent years (despite the Peña Nieto administration taking down 98 of the 122 most wanted criminals), but if Sinaloa is truly weakening and if Guzmán is finally out of commission, then Mexico’s narco landscape could return to the instability and bloodshed that characterised it during the late 2000s.
“Unfortunately what happens with these cartels is that when you take out their leader is that someone takes his place,” Jiménez told Business Insider.
“As long as there is an appetite for drugs in the US,” he added, “someone will take over and control the drug trade in Mexico, which is the current, most active transit point for drugs into the US.”
On the other hand, recent history suggests that the Sinaloa cartel, which is better understood as a group of affiliated factions, is in a position to survive without Guzmán, maintaining its control of the drug trade.
According to government data gathered by Animal Politico’s Narcodata project, the Sinaloa cartel has only expanded during the Peña Nieto administration, which entered office in 2012.
“The Sinaloa cartel operated at the end the six-year term of Felipe Calderon [in 2012] … with eight criminal cells, and through October 2015 it had ten,” Nacrodata wrote.
It would seem that Guzmán’s cartel’s power hasn’t been negatively influenced by his time in jail.
And while, as Shirk noted, the Sinaloa cartel may feel the heat if Guzmán starts to trade information for leniency, it may already be adept at operating in Guzmán’s absence.
“You can’t imagine that during his escape he was particularly effective in running the cartel,” Shirk said. “I think he was probably much more preoccupied …with evading authorities, and much less focused on bankrolling or managing logistics of the operations of his organisation.”
This perseverance in Guzmán’s absence likely has much to do with the role of Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, one of the founding and current leaders of the cartel, whose ties to Colombian cocaine production have aided the Sinaloa cartel’s rise to primacy.
Sinaloa’s internal dynamics aren’t well known, but Zambada would appear to be Guzmán’s silent partner, Shirk told Business Insider.
“Maybe he’s actually the guy behind the guy. Maybe he’s really the guy who runs the show and who’s sort of the main operator. It’s really hard to say.”
Even a scenario in which the Sinaloa cartel continues its dominance without Guzmán contains seeds of discord.
A potential void at the top of the narco-hierarchy in Mexico is something that factions within the Sinaloa cartel as well as other cartels and criminal organisations that have proliferated in the country in recent years will have to face.
“What does their future look like in a post-Chapo, maybe post-Zambada, maybe post-Sinaloa world?” Shirk asked.