Mexican drug kingpin “El Chapo” to appear in US courtroom

Mexican drug kingpin "El Chapo" to appear in US courtroom

NEW YORK — Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, one of the world’s most notorious drug kingpins, is finally headed for a court date the United States sought for two decades while he made brazen prison escapes and spent years on the run in Mexico.

Extradited Thursday to face U.S. drug trafficking and other charges, Mexico’s most wanted man was expected to appear in a federal court in New York Friday, the same day Donald Trump, who has lashed out at Mexico, is inaugurated as president.

The Drug Enforcement Administration flew Guzman to New York from Ciudad Juarez late Thursday, according to federal officials.

The U.S. has been trying to get Guzman in a U.S. court since he was first indicted in Southern California in the early 1990s. Now in his late 50s, he faces the possibility of life in a U.S. prison under indictments in six jurisdictions around the United States, including New York, San Diego, Chicago and Miami.

He’s expected to be prosecuted in Brooklyn, where an indictment accuses him of overseeing a massive trafficking operation that sent billions of dollars in profits back to Mexico. It says Guzman and other members of the Sinaloa cartel, one of the world’s largest drug trafficking organizations, employed hit men who carried out murders, kidnappings and acts of torture.

Guzman, the cartel’s convicted boss, had been held most recently at a prison near Ciudad Juarez, a border town across from El Paso, Texas. He was recaptured a year ago after escaping from a maximum-security prison for a second time, an episode that was highly embarrassing for President Enrique Pena Nieto’s government.

Mexican officials were seen as eager to hand him off to the United States. But Guzman’s lawyers fought his extradition, and attorney Andres Granados accused the government of carrying it out Thursday to distract from nationwide gasoline protests.

“It was illegal. They didn’t even notify us,” Granados said. “It’s totally political.”

Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department said a court had ruled against Guzman’s appeal and found that his extradition would be constitutional.

The extradition came at a charged political moment in the U.S., on the eve of Trump’s inauguration. As a candidate, the Republican criticized Mexico for sending the U.S. “criminals and rapists” and vowed to build a wall at the Mexican border and have Mexico pay for it. Mexican officials have said they wouldn’t pay for such a structure.

Carl Pike, a former DEA agent who spent the last part of his career helping the drug agency chase Guzman, said Thursday he was always confident that the drug lord would be sent to the U.S., but the timing was “interesting.”

“It’s one way of thanking Obama and another way of saying, ‘Mr. Trump, welcome to the arena,’ ” Pike said.

Derek Maltz, who headed the DEA’s Special Operations Division until his retirement in mid-2014, said the extradition reaffirms Mexico’s commitment to working with the United States and curbing the power of its drug cartels, and the timing could be seen as a good-faith effort by the Mexican government.

After breaking out of prison the first time in 2001, Guzman spent more than a decade at large, becoming something of a folk legend among some Mexicans for his defiance of authorities. He was immortalized in ballads known as “narco-corridos.”

Captured in 2014, Guzman then made an even more audacious escape, coolly stepping into a hole in the floor of his prison cell shower and whizzing to freedom on a motorcycle modified to run on tracks laid the length of the tunnel.

While again on the run, he secretly met with actors Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo in a fall 2015 encounter that Penn later chronicled in Rolling Stone magazine.

Guzman was unapologetic about his criminal activities, saying he had turned to drug trafficking at age 15 to survive.

“The only way to have money to buy food, to survive, is to grow poppy, marijuana, and at that age, I began to grow it, to cultivate it and to sell it. That is what I can tell you,” he was quoted as saying in Penn’s article, published right after Mexican marines re-arrested Guzman last January.

Guzman was ultimately captured after a shootout that killed five of his associates, wounded one marine and added another dramatic chapter to a story even Guzman apparently thought sounded like a Hollywood movie: Authorities were able to track him down partly because he wanted to film a biopic and had representatives communicating with actors and producers, Mexican Attorney General Arely Gomez said at the time.

Maltz said Guzman’s extradition is not likely to immediately curb the Sinaloa cartel’s role in the drug trade, but it signals that the U.S. and Mexico are serious about fighting drug gangs.

“When they start seeing the extraditions of the cartel leadership and they see the unbelievable effort in Mexico, with the killing and capture of top cartel leaders, they are going to start feeling the heat like they’ve never seen it before,” Maltz said.

The White House, which was down to a skeleton staff hours before Trump takes office, said it had no immediate comment.

___

Associated Press writers Peter Orsi and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City and Bradley Klapper, Alicia Caldwell and Eric Tucker in Washington and Mark Stevenson contributed to this report.

Tom Hays, The Associated Press

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