LOS MOCHIS, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexico aims to extradite drug lord Joaquin “Chapo” Guzman to the United States after security forces recaptured the fugitive cartel leader who blew his cover through a series of slip ups, including an attempt to make a movie about his life.
The Mexican Attorney General’s office will be working as fast as possible to establish the path to extradition, and Chapo could be sent to the United States by mid-year, a source familiar with the situation said on Saturday. However the timing might depend on injunctions filed by Guzman’s legal team.
Guzman, the world’s top drug smuggler and boss of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel, is wanted by U.S. authorities on a host of criminal charges. His organisation has smuggled billions of dollars worth of drugs into the United States and is blamed for thousands of deaths in Mexico and the United States due to addiction and gang warfare.
“The objective is to fulfil the extradition request,” another source said.
Guzman’s dramatic capture in the town of Los Mochis on Friday followed a six month-long intelligence operation during which the drug lord relaxed his security just enough to allow authorities to pick up his trail.
Among his errors, Guzman got in touch with people in the film industry to have them make a “biopic” movie of his eventful life journey from rural poverty to untold wealth and dramatic jailbreaks.
“Another important aspect which helped locate him was discovering Guzman’s intention to have a biographical film made. He contacted actresses and producers, which was part of one line of investigation,” Mexico’s Attorney General Arely Gomez said.
Perhaps more importantly, Gomez said security forces also identified a expert in digging tunnels in Guzman’s circle who was outfitting houses in the states of Sinaloa and Sonora.
Authorities caught wind of that and began carefully watching a house in Los Mochis, Sinaloa. They spotted unusual activity when a vehicle pulled up before dawn on Jan. 7, and intelligence officials confirmed Guzman was on the property.
A raid followed. Mexican Marines chased Guzman and his chief hitman through a drain and then nabbed them as he tried to flee by car.
The United States requested Guzman´s extradition in late June, just a couple of weeks before his brazen escape from a maximum security prison through a mile-long tunnel which burrowed right up through the floor of his cell.
The failure to extradite him before his elaborate jailbreak strained relations with the United States.
Juan Pablo Badillo, a lawyer representing Guzman, said on Saturday that the drug kingpin could not be extradited.
“In strict accordance with the constitution, he cannot nor should not be extradited to any foreign country,” Badillo told local television channel Milenio. “Why? Because he is Mexican, and Mexico has wise laws and a fair constitution, and there is absolute confidence in the prisons authority.”
Milenio cited Badillo as saying that Guzman’s team had filed six injunctions against extradition to the United States.
Later, Mexico’s Attorney General’s office said that none of the injunctions presented would get in the way of starting extradition proceedings.
Sending Guzman to the United States would help allay fears the drug lord could use his massive fortune to bribe prison officials and escape from a Mexican maximum security jail yet again.
In the Sinaloan state capital of Culiacan, where many view Guzman as a latter-day Robin Hood, some residents fear his arrest and eventual extradition could open the door for other drug gangsters to extort locals.
“We hope that other bad people don’t come. Here there is no extortion, El Chapo let people work,” said Marta Lopez, 44, a street seller hawking candies and peanuts.
Though the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Marshals helped in the recapture, American officials have taken no credit and instead lavished praise on Mexico.
“Criminals like Guzman-Loera are responsible for bringing hundreds of tons of illicit drugs into the United States every year, and are responsible for tremendous amounts of violence and death in our own country and across the world,” the U.S. State Department said on Friday.
U.S. government sources said the White House and Department of Justice have impressed on government agencies that policy is let Mexico take all the credit for Guzman’s capture, and not claim any for themselves.
Sources said U.S. agencies were at the very least involved in providing intelligence support during the operation. On Saturday, neither DEA nor U.S. Justice Department officials would comment on whether or not the U.S. was expecting Mexico to extradite Guzman.
For years the world’s most wanted drug lord used tunnels to move tonnes of drugs into the United States and to evade capture.
Six months after a brazen jailbreak worthy of Hollywood, escaping a maximum security prison through the tunnel from his cell, Mexico’s security forces turned the tables on Guzman on Friday.
“During the confrontation, Guzman Loera managed to escape through the city’s drainage system, which had already been factored into the capture strategy,” Gomez said late on Friday, as Guzman was whisked by helicopter to the same maximum security prison in central Mexico he broke out of in July. Guzman’s arrest is a major boost for President Enrique Pena Nieto, who was highly embarrassed by last year’s jailbreak, Guzman’s second in 15 years.
Gomez said Guzman was almost caught in October, when Marines in a helicopter zeroed in on him near a ranch in the rugged northern state of Durango.
But he was spied in the company of two women and a young girl, prompting the Marines to hold fire and allowing him to slip their grasp.
The encounter pushed Guzman deeper into Mexico’s notorious “Golden Triangle”, where the bulk of the country’s opium and marijuana are produced, limiting his communications and cutting down his security detail to a small core.
But for reasons that are unclear, El Chapo had by December decided to hide out in cities. The tunnel-builder began working on homes across Sinaloa and Sonora.
Marines formed a cordon around the block on Saturday morning, and said they believed Guzman had been in the property for around 48 hours before the raid was launched.
One local resident, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, said the operation appears to have been triggered after a neighbour complained there were armed men outside his house.
Marine helicopters then hovered over nearby storm drains as they sought to capture Guzman. A dead rat lay beside the mouth of one nearby drain that residents suspect he used in his escape.
After chasing him through a drain and stopping his getaway car, the Marines took Guzman and made an unscheduled stop - waiting for reinforcements at Hotel Doux, a love motel on the outskirts of town that rents out rooms for a few hours at a time.
With additional reporting by Michael O'Boyle in Culiacan, Alexandra Alper and Ana Isabel Martinez in Mexico City and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray, Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell