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Extraditing El Chapo was a good sign — for both Mexico and the US

Mexico sent the US one of its worst people ... to preserve law and order.

Chapo Guzman
(Alfredo Estrella/AFP)

Joaquín Guzmán-Loera — the man the rest of the world knows as El Chapo — was officially arraigned in a New York court this morning on 17 counts of drug trafficking and criminal conspiracy, charges likely to ensure that he spends his lifetime in a high-security American prison.

The extradition is being treated as a “farewell gift” (in the words of one Mexican official) to President Barack Obama, and a deliberate refusal to hand an early victory to President Donald Trump. But the extradition wasn’t a political favor. It was the result of years of tense talks between the two countries over issues like Mexico’s clear inability to prevent El Chapo from twice escaping what were nominally the country’s toughest prisons, and whether the US would try to execute him for his crimes. It was a victory for the rule of law — and a small but notable win in the broader war on drugs.

Mexico wanted to prove it was strong enough to hold Chapo — except it wasn’t

Arresting, charging, and convicting Chapo Guzmán won’t necessarily reduce the carnage wracking Mexico because of ongoing fighting between its warring drug cartels, bloodshed that has left more than 80,000 dead since 2006. (If anything, in the short term his recapture in 2016 increased violence and instability, as it weakened his once-dominant Sinaloa Cartel and allowed others to challenge it.) The point of taking down crime kingpins like Guzmán is instead to demonstrate that the government is stronger than any individual — that it’s capable of punishing any violation of the law, without favor or corruption, and keeping all its citizens safe.

That only works if it’s true — if it is not, in fact, possible for someone to have enough power and money to bribe his way out of trouble or have compatriots help him escape.

In Mexico, sadly, that hasn’t been the case. The forces of the government (the police, military, prison guards, local governments) have been so shot through with corruption that citizens simply don’t trust that they’re willing or able to take down powerful criminals.

Chapo Guzmán has long been a symbol of that impunity. He’s become something of a dark folk hero in Mexico for his ability to evade justice. That, despite the fact that he’s openly confessed to killing “two thousand or three thousand” people (in an interview with a Mexican journalist after his capture in 2014), and is in large part responsible for the violence of the Mexican drug war itself.

When the charges against Guzmán in this case were first filed in 2009, no one had any idea whether he’d ever stand trial anywhere — in Mexico or in the US. He’d escaped a Mexican prison in 2001 (the story, perhaps apocryphal, is that he was smuggled out in a laundry cart), and Mexican law enforcement had been unable (or just unwilling) to track him down ever since.

In February 2014, with much fanfare, the Mexican government announced it had recaptured El Chapo. Within days, several US prosecutors whose offices had charged Guzmán in absentia — from Brooklyn to Southern California — had asked Mexico to extradite him.

But for the Mexican government, keeping El Chapo in Mexico was a matter of national pride.

The government of President Enrique Peña Nieto had reached something of a stalemate in the broader drug war. Peña Nieto’s deployment of troops to towns and cities to effectively replace the corrupt and ineffectual local police forces had initially looked promising, with homicides dropping in his first year of office in 2012, but the victory didn’t last: Homicides have returned to previous levels, and high-profile incidents like the murder of 34 students in Ayotzinapa in 2014 (and the government’s failure to investigate) have undermined citizens’ faith in the rule of law.

Peña Nieto’s government wanted to show the rest of the world that it was capable of holding Chapo in jail and convicting him, as Patrick Radden Keefe reported for the New Yorker:

[Government officials] insisted that Mexico’s institutions of criminal justice had improved dramatically since Guzmán’s earlier escape, and that the prosecution of someone who had once seemed so untouchable would represent an important benchmark for rule of law in the country—a sort of proof of concept.

They needed to prove that the system wasn’t as weak and corrupt as people thought.

Except it was.

In July 2015, Chapo escaped again, thanks to a mile-long tunnel wide enough for him to ride a motorcycle through (which is what he did). It was immediately apparent that he’d had help from within the prison.

The tunnel through which Chapo Guzmán escaped in 2015.
Hector Guerrero/AFP via Getty

The escape proved precisely the opposite point from the one Pena Nieto’s government wanted. As Amanda Taub wrote for Vox at the time:

The president cannot restore Mexican security until he roots out cartel corruption in the government, military, and police, and he has been struggling to do so. Guzmán's prison break seems like a perfect symbol of the president's failure to fulfill that goal.

Mexico tried to choose pride over security, and got neither. Ultimately, it decided to swallow its pride. It worked with the US government in the operation that recaptured El Chapo in January 2016; four months later, it formally agreed to extradite him to the US. (Since then, Guzmán and his lawyers have been trying to fight the extradition, but this week Mexico said he had exhausted his final appeal.)

The US has chosen certainty of punishment over severity

The US is a more reliable captor for Guzmán precisely because it has the integrity the Mexican criminal justice system lacks. It is extremely, extremely unlikely that US prison guards will be willing to help Guzmán escape from a maximum-security prison — something Guzmán and his legal team appear to realize, since at one point they agreed to extradition as long as Guzmán would be kept in a medium-security facility.

And when he gets locked up, it will be for a long time. One of the counts he faces in New York (leading a continuing criminal enterprise) carries a minimum sentence of life in prison; even if he’s acquitted of that, he’s charged with trafficking such a high weight of drugs that (if convicted of drug charges) federal guidelines recommend a life sentence.

It’s unlikely that Guzmán will be acquitted of all 17 charges — the US government has examined the case of the Brooklyn prosecutors and found it strong enough that it gave them the right to try Guzmán first (even though, technically, the extradition requests that the Mexican government honored came from cases in California and Mexico).

But Mexico didn’t simply give up and let the US government do whatever it wanted to Guzmán; that’s not how extradition worked. The countries’ extradition treaty prevents turning over a Mexican citizen to the US to be killed, a potentially serious roadblock given the real possibility that American prosecutors would seek the death penalty.

When the two countries reached an agreement to extradite Guzmán last summer, they appeared to reach a compromise. Mexico said there were no formal assurances that Guzmán wouldn’t face the death penalty. But the New York prosecutors quietly dropped a series of murder charges — which would have made Guzmán eligible to receive the death penalty — from their indictment.

They might have hoped to seek death for El Chapo, but it wasn’t as important as ensuring he was convicted and sentenced to begin with.

It’s a promising sign for both countries. Mexico is in the 10th year of its drug war and is in desperate need of new ideas for fighting it; by handing Guzmán over to the US, it’s shown it’s willing to be flexible, and go for what works over what it would ideally prefer.

The US, meanwhile, has demonstrated a commitment to the certainty of punishment over its severity. US prosecutors often get seduced by the temptation of high-profile victories and “making an example”–level harsh sentences, sometimes in a way that blows up in their faces (the recent acquittals of George Zimmerman and Ryan Bundy being two recent examples). It’s less effective to deter criminals with harsh punishments, though, than it is to demonstrate that they will definitely be caught and punished.

For a while, it looked like Guzmán would outrun that principle. But the rule of law has caught up to him.

Read the indictment against Chapo Guzmán here:

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