Working the System

Could El Chapo Go Free?

The notorious Sinaloa cartel boss is trying to use Mexican law to get himself out of jail—and it just might work. His weapons charges have been tossed, and racketeering could be next.

Bloomberg/Getty

Murder and bribes are said to have been Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera’s prime tools running the Sinaloa cartel.

But the Mexican marines who grabbed him back in February were unafraid and incorruptible.

So, from his cell at Altiplano prison, El Chapo is trying a new approach.

The law.

He is seeking to use the Mexican courts to free himself.

And last week, a Mexican federal court tossed out weapons charges that had been lodged against him when he was arrested. The court agreed with El Chapo’s lawyer that the bust had been “an illegal intrusion of agents” because the marines had failed to secure a warrant first before bursting into his hideout.

“The defense demonstrated that there were various shortfalls, including the unwarranted intervention of arresting officers at the place he was detained,” the ruling said in part.

Never mind that going to a judge to secure the necessary court order might have been equivalent to sending the fugitive drug lord a message saying, “HEY, EL CHAPO, THE MARINES ARE COMING! GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE BEFORE YOU GET NABBED!”

The question now is whether the court’s ruling will affect the racketeering charges he still faces, and whether El Chapo could possibly walk free.

Reason says that could never occur, particularly with much of Mexico roused to outrage by the mass murder of 43 student teachers.

But as the excellent blog Borderland Beat says, “Remember this is Mexico and anything can happen.”

Borderland notes that in recent years Mexican authorities have freed 10 once-incarcerated Mexican drug kingpins, some thanks to early release, others to legal maneuvering.

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Among them was Rafael Caro Quintero, the cartel leader who ordered the torture and murder of the American DEA agent Enrique Camarena Salazar. Caro was freed in August 2013 after a court tossed out his murder conviction, decreeing that he should have been tried in local court rather than federal court.

The U.S. government went appropriately berserk, and this past August the Mexican authorities announced their intention to arrest him. He remains a fugitive.

Also at liberty is kingpin Martin Alejandro Beltran Coronel, who was arrested in 2011 on weapons and racketeering charges similar to those later lodged against El Chapo.

Two months ago, a Mexican federal court tossed out the weapons charges because the soldiers who arrested Beltran did not have a warrant and had thereby trampled upon “the inviolability of the home.” The racketeering charges also were voided because protected witnesses had identified Beltran in a book of photos rather than in person. The court found that this violated “the right to the presumption of innocence.”

Just as the lack of a warrant was cited in tossing out the weapons charges against El Chapo, a judge no doubt could find a technicality to void the racketeering charges.

And if the Mexican authorities did not feel it necessary to notify the Americans that they were freeing the murderer of a DEA agent, they are certainly capable of freeing El Chapo before we could extradite him to face existing charges in U.S. cities ranging from New York to Chicago to San Diego.

The primary witnesses against El Chapo in Chicago are the twin brothers Pedro and Margarito Flores, who say they once made as much as $750 million a year buying drugs by the thousands of tons from El Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel. The twins are ready to testify that El Chapo used Boeing 747 cargo planes and submarines, as well as tractor trailers and freight trains and tunnels, to transport drugs one way and cash the other.

But we cannot be entirely sure that El Chapo will remain in a Mexican prison, much less ever see an American courtroom.

In the meantime, there is talk that with El Chapo in prison the Sinaloa cartel has a new leader. He is said to be Damaso Lopez Jr., aka El Mini Lic, El Chapo’s godson, who is not yet 30 years old.

Lopez’s father was head of security at Puente Grande Prison when El Chapo escaped from there in 2001. The son is reportedly part of a new generation of young drug lords who called themselves “the Anthrax Group.” He is a fan of social media and describes himself on Twitter as, “Young Millionaire, Seductive, Owner of Immense Power, Super Luxury Cars, Always Surrounded by Beautiful Women.”

But Mexico being Mexico, there is a chance that the courts will enable somebody else to succeed the imprisoned El Chapo as the new leader.

That person?

El Chapo, free again.