TIMING

Why Mexico Sent ‘El Chapo’ to the U.S. Now

Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán is set to face a New York judge as Donald Trump is sworn in as 45th president of the United States.

Anadolu Agency/Getty

TIJUANA, Mexico — Notorious drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera will finally appear before a U.S. judge this Friday, as Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States.

Guzmán was extradited Thursday “to face criminal charges in connection with his leadership of the Mexican organized-crime syndicate known as the ‘Sinaloa Cartel,’” the U.S. Department of Justice announced. He faces six separate indictments in the U.S. in multiple jurisdictions, including New York, San Diego, and Miami.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration took custody of the kingpin in Ciudad Juarez—across the border from El Paso, Texas—on Thursday, in time to go before a Brooklyn judge on Inauguration Day. His transfer to the courthouse will briefly shut down the Brooklyn Bridge on Friday.

Guzmán, who is accused drug trafficking, money laundering, and murder, had exhausted all appeals against extradition in Mexico. But his lawyers complained they were not notified of the impending extradition and were caught completely off-guard. One Chapo lawyer, José Refugio Rodríguez, said in an interview with Mexican TV journalist Carlos Loret de Mola that the timing of the extradition was “totally political.”

Prominent Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope called the extradition the “end of an era,” and said he believed the timing of the transfer—on the eve of Trump’s inauguration—was meant to “not give Trump an early victory with Chapo’s extradition.”

Many international news outlets speculated as much, with some claiming the extradition was meant as a gesture of goodwill for the outgoing Obama administration. Others speculated it would serve as an olive branch for incoming President Donald Trump, whose election has crippled the Mexican peso and created much uncertainty for the Mexican economy.

In January of last year, Mexico’s then-attorney general, Jesus Murillo Karam, claimed the drug kingpin would not ever set foot on U.S. soil. “El Chapo has to stay [in Mexico] to complete his sentence and then I’ll extradite him, in about 300 or 400 years,” Karam said at the time. “It will be a while.”

The transfer of custody this week has proved him wrong.

Most are celebrating the extradition as good news, as Mexico has thrice proven incapable of containing the cartel boss, who has become infamous for his elaborate escapes from federal custody.

Exactly 16 years before his extradition—on Jan. 19, 2001—Guzmán had his first jailbreak, escaping from the Puente Grande prison in Jalisco, allegedly by hiding in a laundry cart.

He had been sentenced to serve two decades in Mexican prison, following his arrest in Guatemala in 1993, which came just weeks after he gained notoriety for skirting a failed assassination attempt by Tijuana’s Arellano Felix cartel, which left Catholic Cardinal Juan Jesús Posadas Ocampo dead at the Guadalajara airport—in what was apparently a case of mistaken identity.

Following his first escape from prison, Guzmán became Mexico’s most wanted man as well as one of the most sought criminals in the U.S.

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The Drug Enforcement Administration announced a $5 million reward in 2004 for information leading to the arrest of El Chapo, noting that he was wanted for vast criminal conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine in Southern California, after finding sophisticated ways to thwart the U.S. border in Baja California, smuggling drugs through underground tunnels or disguised as other goods.

After years on the run, he was almost captured by Mexican authorities in 2012 in Los Cabos, just one day after then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with prominent Mexican officials in the popular resort town.

After an intense manhunt, El Chapo was arrested in Mazatlan in 2014 once more. But the following year, Guzmán managed to escape yet again from the Altiplano maximum-security prison in Mexico State. The government was forced to tell the country that Mexico’s most wanted criminal was once again fugitive, after escaping from his cell through a mile-long tunnel leading out from the drain in his shower.

The embarrassment led to more than a dozen arrests among prison staff, and sparked yet another manhunt. But as the Mexican government threw resources and manpower toward capturing El Chapo, he seemed to always be just one step ahead, evading recapture on multiple occasions, until the search culminated in a shootout between cartel operatives and the Mexican navy in January of last year.

He was arrested for what will likely be the final time in Los Mochis, in his home state of Sinaloa, just months after embarrassing the Mexican government once more, by infamously meeting with Sean Penn and Mexican narco-drama actress Kate del Castillo while a fugitive—in an encounter that Sean Penn floridly recounted for Rolling Stone magazine.

That careless meeting with Penn and the beautiful actress is believed to have been his final downfall.

His arrest led to an about-face for U.S. authorities, who were forced to admit that at least one weapon found among the cache in El Chapo’s safehouse had made it there via the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ failed program known as Operation Fast and Furious. The semi-automatic sniper rifle, capable of shooting down a helicopter, was linked directly back to the gun-running operation mishandled by the ATF’s Phoenix division. Many other weapons linked to the disastrous operation have resurfaced in the hands of the Sinaloa cartel, but this was the first known to have made it all the way to the top of the hierarchy.

The Sinaloa cartel, today, dominates northwestern Mexico and the U.S. drug market, with the highest presence in the U.S. of any other Mexican drug trade organization, according to the DEA.

Now, Guzmán will face justice in the U.S., but the significance is largely symbolic, as his arrest does little to cripple the powerful Sinaloa cartel, which continues to operate swiftly on both sides of the border.

But the curious timing of his extradition has left many to speculate what effect this will have on binational relations, which have hit a rough patch following Donald Trump’s multiple controversial campaign speeches critical of Mexico and Mexicans, and promises to build a border wall, and block efforts to bring jobs to Mexico.

Guzmán’s day in Brooklyn federal court this Friday is set to steal a bit of the spotlight from the inauguration today of almost-President Donald Trump, who once tweeted of El Chapo that he “would kick his ass,” after reports that the Sinaloa cartel boss had tweeted that Trump is a racist and a misogynist.

Almost unbelievably, Trump has not yet tweeted about El Chapo landing in his backyard.