The fight to extradite El Chapo.
Illustration by Jason Arias.
The circus, it seems, is headed to Brooklyn. In the coming weeks, the Department of Justice is expected to announce it has secured the extradition of Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, the head of the Sinaloa drug cartel. The plan, according to reports in the Daily News and the Post, is to prosecute him in the Eastern District of New York, which is headquartered in downtown Brooklyn, a few miles from where I live. Guzmán is one of the world’s most ruthless and slippery criminals. He has escaped from two of Mexico’s most secure prisons: once, supposedly, in a laundry basket; the second time, supposedly, through a tunnel, on a motorbike fixed to a rail. I say supposedly, because with El Chapo, you just never know.
The cartel leaders have become, both in Mexico and abroad, near-mythical figures. There are the narcocorridos, the salacious documentaries, the gruesome clips on social media, the conspiracy theories, the rumors of which officials are on the take and which are clean, the beauty queens, the telenovela stars, and, lately, Sean Penn on assignment for Rolling Stone. Somewhere behind all that is a squat man in his late fifties, standing about five-foot-six, with black hair and laugh lines carved deep into his cheeks. In January, when Mexican marines tracked him down to a safe house in Los Mochis, five people were shot dead and El Chapo escaped through a tunnel once again, leaving behind a bedroom littered with cookie wrappers and syringes, emerging from a manhole, and hijacking a passing car. The marines eventually caught up with him down the road, and when they finally took him into custody, they made sure the press got a good look at him in his soiled undershirt, with his unkempt hair and mustache. Then they sent him back to Altiplano Prison, the same institution he had broken out of six months before. A few reports trickled out about conditions there: about the lights that kept the prisoner from sleeping, about the conjugal visits and the Viagra he requested and was denied, about the copy of Don Quixote he was permitted.
On May 7th, for reasons that remain murky, El Chapo was removed from Altiplano before dawn and brought to a new facility, about fifteen miles from the US border, in territory more or less under the control of the Sinaloa Cartel.
The new prison is called Cefereso No. 9. According to the National Human Rights Commission, it is the worst federal prison in Mexico. El Chapo’s lawyer, Jose Refugio Rodriguez, told Fox News Latino that his client considers his new cell “dirty and ugly,” and that he would like to go back to Altiplano. This is the same lawyer who hinted that El Chapo would agree to extradition, and maybe even to a guilty plea once he arrives in the US, and all Guzmán asks in return is a simple guarantee: that any sentence he receives will be served in a medium-security facility. El Chapo is winking at us, teasing us, from behind the bars of his cell. And now, supposedly, this man, almost a myth but then again distinctly of this world, will soon be heading north, accompanied by a squadron of US Marshals, bound for New York.
But why send him to Brooklyn, of all places?
According to the DEA, the Sinaloa cartel is responsible for a quarter of all illegal drugs entering the US from Mexico. In certain cities, like Chicago, that number rises to as high as 80 percent. Sinaloa is believed to be the primary supplier fueling the heroin epidemic in the northeastern US—supplanting Colombian and Asian products, shoring up trafficking routes, and lowering prices to the point where you can buy, for example, a 100-milligram glassine baggie of mid-grade heroin in my hometown on the South Coast of Massachusetts for less than a pack of cigarettes. Forbes estimates that the cartel’s annual revenues exceed $3 billion, and that Guzmán’s personal fortune (“source of wealth: drug trafficking, self made”) is around $1 billion. You’d be hard-pressed to find a place in the Americas that hasn’t been touched by the man’s drugs, his money, or both. Brooklyn is no exception. Narcotics smuggling, not to mention consumption, is a staple in the annals of Brooklyn crime. This is the borough with the container terminals, the piers, the truck yards, the warehouses, easy access to the airports, and over 2.5 million residents. Sinaloa, according to intelligence reports, is the top dog amongst the many Mexican outfits competing to run drugs across the five boroughs.
Brooklyn isn’t the only place that wants him. Seven different US federal districts have indicted Guzmán over the years, starting with San Diego in 1996, followed by Chicago, Brooklyn, Miami, Manhattan, El Paso and finally, in 2016, Concord, New Hampshire. The jurisdictional basis isn’t hard to find. Narcotrafficking, like much of organized crime, is a globalized, diversified business. Anywhere the Sinaloa cartel’s tentacles extend—wherever its drugs are sold; wherever its money is stashed or its personnel operates; wherever the chemicals, arms, and humans are smuggled—El Chapo is vulnerable to prosecution, provided, of course, the district that wants to do the prosecuting can manage to get a hold of him.
It was the Mexican government’s position that El Chapo ought to die in one of its prisons.
The Mexican government first had El Chapo in its crosshairs in 1993. The previous year, he and his men engaged in a murderous shoot-out at a club in Puerto Vallarta before fleeing the country. After being arrested in Guatemala, he was sent back to Mexico, convicted on drug trafficking charges and sentenced to twenty years in prison. He began to serve his time with ease, bribing his guards and securing the run of the place (telecom, prostitutes, catering) from the outset. In 2001 he escaped, setting off a new manhunt. In 2004, the Mexican Army almost captured him at a Sinaloa ranch, but he fled across the mountains. The army showed up at his 2007 wedding to Emma Coronel, too, but by the time they arrived, he was already gone. Over the next decade, Mexico poured enormous resources into tracking El Chapo, arresting him, imprisoning him, then chasing him some more.
And so, for a long time, it was the Mexican government’s position that El Chapo ought to die in one of its prisons. When asked in 2015 whether he would extradite his prize captive to the US to stand trial, Jesus Murillo Karam, then the Mexican Attorney General, said, “El Chapo has to stay here and do his time, then I’ll extradite him…[in] 300, 400 years.” That was before the tunnel underneath Altiplano, before the failed attempt to storm his mountain hideout in the remote “golden triangle” on the border of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua, before the shoot-out in Los Mochis. Murillo Karam is no longer Attorney General. (He stepped down as a result of the ongoing scandal over the mass kidnapping of forty-three college students in Iguala, Guerrero; then he landed comfortably in a new cabinet role as the Minister for Agrarian and Urban Development.) His boss, President Enrique Peña Nieto, has had enough of El Chapo. Putting him on trial in Mexico and holding him in its prisons just isn’t worth the cost, apparently. In January, shortly after El Chapo was recaptured, Peña Nieto announced that he was instructing government officials to “achieve the extradition of this highly dangerous delinquent as soon as possible.”
It’s true that there are many exotic locales where criminals can safely avoid the long arm of American justice. At any given moment, depending on your reading of various international agreements, understandings, and tealeaves, there are probably eighty to 100 countries that would decline or find themselves barred from sending wanted criminals to the US to stand trial. Mexico is not one of those countries. For almost forty years, Mexico and the US have had a treaty in place, and when, from time to time, that document proves cumbersome to abide by, the US tends to get a hold of the individuals it wants by more clandestine means: informal immigration arrangements, for example, whereby non-Mexican nationals (or those with debatable claims to Mexican citizenship) are conveniently deported across the border and into US custody; or kidnapping them, as in the case of Humberto Álvarez Machaín. Álvarez Machaín was a Mexican physician who in 1985 was suspected of having aided in the torture of Kiki Camarena, a DEA agent who had gone undercover to infiltrate the Guadelajara Cartel (the Sinaloa-born organization in which a young El Chapo apprenticed).
Following Camarena’s death, the DEA launched Operation Leyenda, the largest homicide investigation in the agency’s history, which involved extensive operations on Mexican soil, and also the hiring of a private bounty hunter who, in 1990, grabbed Álvarez Machaín outside his office in Guadalajara and brought him across the border to stand trial in a Los Angeles federal court. Álvarez Machaín and the Mexican government both protested the kidnapping and argued that it poisoned the court’s jurisdictional authority. But when the case finally reached the Supreme Court, the justices ruled that it doesn’t matter how a foreign national comes to be in the US, or whether laws were broken in getting him there: if his body is in a courtroom, he can be tried. (Álvarez Machaín was ultimately acquitted and returned home to Mexico in 1992; the US-Mexico extradition treaty was later amended to prohibit kidnappings, though the precedent from that case, known as the Ker-Frisbie Doctrine, holds as good law.)
Mexico transfers between 200 and 400 wanted individuals to the US each year, far more than any other country in the world. A good number of them are connected to the cartels. Earlier this year, Alfredo Beltran Leyva, the former drug lord once aligned with Sinaloa and then with the rival Zetas, pled guilty to charges of cocaine and methamphetamine trafficking in a DC courtroom. One of his men, Edgar Valdez Villareal—known as “El Barbie” because of his blonde hair and light eyes—awaits sentencing in Atlanta. Juan Roberto Rincon-Rincon, a leader of the Gulf Cartel, was convicted in Texas and sentenced to life in prison. Osiel Cárdenas Guillén, the former head of the Gulf Cartel, and the man who originally formed the Zetas, was also sent to Texas and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison, under a plea deal that has stirred up serious controversy in recent months thanks to a series of groundbreaking reports by the Dallas Morning News. Two sons of Sinaloa’s new top man, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada García (El Chapo’s co-defendant in the Brooklyn case), have been sent to the US: one to San Diego and one to Chicago, where they’ve pled guilty to charges of cocaine trafficking, prompting speculation as to whether one of them may eventually cooperate with the DOJ in its newest signature case, the prosecution of El Chapo.
Mexico itself has the legal ability, as well as every reason, to prosecute these men. Their conduct occurred in large part on Mexican soil, in violation of Mexican laws.
But, for now at least, the US seems to want them more.
Shortly after it became clear that the Mexican government had softened its position on shipping El Chapo north, representatives from the seven US districts with active indictments against him presented their cases to the home office in DC, each arguing why it should be given the privilege of conducting what will almost certainly be a grueling and expensive prosecution. From the outside, the process sometimes seemed like a bid to host the Olympics. There were breathless headlines nearly every week—in The San Diego Tribune: “Could El Chapo Come to San Diego?” In The Miami Herald, via McClatchy DC: “Momentum Swings to Miami As Venue For Mega-Trial of ‘El Chapo.’” Chicago, which declared El Chapo “Public Enemy Number One,” was thought to be a strong contender. Its evidence reportedly includes extensive phone recordings. Concord threw its hat in the ring, too, with a story that made for compelling news, anyway: a sting operation, an FBI informant on a secret trip to the Sinaloa mountains, a late-night chat with El Chapo himself.
Corrupt politicians and police are implicated, as well as the infamous sicarios.
Brooklyn, though, has been the favorite from the start. Its indictment, in effect, takes on the entire Sinaloa operation, accusing El Chapo and his co-conspirators of running “the largest drug trafficking operation in the world.” (He is charged under the Continuing Criminal Enterprise Statute AKA the “Kingpin Statute.”) Corrupt politicians and police are implicated, as well as the infamous sicarios: hit men employed by the cartels to collect on debts, impose punishment, and inflict terror within and without the ranks.
The indictment, which was first filed in 2009 and made public in 2014, covers over two decades of activity, identifying 84 different cocaine shipments—247,212 kilograms of product—and a $14 billion fortune amassed by the bosses, money that would be subject to government seizure if the case can be proved and the assets uncovered.
Until a few weeks ago it also accused El Chapo and the others of twelve murders, including the 2008 killing of Roberto Velasco Bravo, Mexico’s former director of investigation for organized crime. According to Proceso and Insight Crime, the case would have been the first of its kind: a Mexican drug lord tried in a US courtroom for the murder of Mexicans in Mexico. The indictment asked the court to exercise extraterritorial jurisdiction, an esoteric legal doctrine first developed by maritime courts, but which also applies (in theory) to offenses committed against any individual connected to US military or diplomatic missions, such as the ones that have been waged by the DEA, FBI and Pentagon against the cartels. It was an ambitious move from the beginning, one that likely struck many in Mexico as overreaching, however well intentioned, and possibly a dangerous precedent in US-Mexico relations. On May 11th, without any particular fanfare, the Brooklyn prosecutors filed a superseding indictment that omitted the twelve murder charges and replaced them with the less territorially controversial accusation that the defendants conspired to murder “persons who posed a threat to the Sinaloa cartel.”
The kingpin charges, the hundreds of thousands of kilos of cocaine, and the $14 billion remained.
So the simple answer as to why El Chapo may be headed to Brooklyn, rather than to San Diego or Concord, is this: the charges in Brooklyn are precise and ambitious; in the estimation of the DOJ, the evidence is there to back them up.
The more complicated answer is that once you peel away the layers of bureaucracy—the red notes, the provisional arrest warrants, the inquiries into duality, specialty, and a host of ever more obscure legal doctrines—extradition is about diplomacy, and diplomacy tends to boil down to a few relationships, and the trust they inspire.
When seven different federal districts find themselves clamoring after the same prisoner—in this case, the world’s most infamous narcotrafficker—the buck stops with the Attorney General. The AG, supported by high-ranking staff and the DOJ’s Office of International Affairs, is the one who must decide which case is strongest, and which prosecutors are most likely to secure a conviction, so that when she and her representatives go to their counterparts in Mexico—the Attorney General, the Foreign Minister, President Peña Nieto—all parties involved can rest assured that El Chapo is being delivered into good hands.
The current attorney general is Loretta Lynch, who made her bones in Brooklyn, and whose previous job was as the US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
In the world of organized crime prosecution, Brooklyn is hallowed ground, like Shaolin or one of the ballparks, Fenway or Wrigley, where the old teams still play.
Brooklyn is where local members of gangs like MS-13, the Bloods, and the Latin Kings are regularly sentenced on an array of charges.
New York City is divided between two federal districts: Manhattan and the Bronx are in the Southern District; Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island are in the Eastern. Each district has its own US Attorney and its own personality. (The Wall Street Journal once called their rivalry “The Legal Subway Series.”) The Southern District, which has its own history of mob convictions, most prominently in the 1980s, is best known now for white-collar cases: insider trading on Wall Street, securities fraud, political corruption.
The Eastern District, on the other hand, maintains a grittier reputation. Brooklyn is where John Gotti was finally convicted, where Vincent “Chin” Gigante, head of the Genovese family—who wandered the streets in pajamas hoping to bolster an eventual insanity plea—was found fit to be tried and convicted of racketeering, where the Bonnano family was brought down, the same as Vyacheslav Ivankov, the Russian mob boss, and Dandeny Muñoz Mosquera, who served as the Medellin cartel’s top assassin and helped bomb an Avianca jetliner with 107 people on board. Brooklyn is where local members of gangs like MS-13, the Bloods, and the Latin Kings are regularly sentenced on an array of charges, and where forty-one defendants and counting have been indicted on racketeering and wire fraud charges in connection with the investigation into that pervasive international conspiracy known as FIFA.
Lately, the Eastern District has turned its attention on the Mexican cartels. (The jurisdictional hook in these cases is often JFK Airport, or some other shipment hub.) Within the office’s Criminal Division there is a section dedicated to International Narcotics and Money Laundering. Its members are regularly dispatched to special task forces targeting drug traffickers. Just last year, the office indicted three leading members of a Sinaloa controlled money-laundering ring. It also secured the extradition of Tirso Martinez-Sanchez, a high-ranking shipping and logistics expert who worked with the Sinaloa, Juarez, and Beltran Leyva Cartels. Look over a recent press release from the DOJ heralding a conviction or a guilty plea against an international narcotrafficker, and you are likely to find the name of an investigator or an assistant AUSA from the Eastern District somewhere in the acknowledgments.
The US Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn is home to some of the world’s most dogged and accomplished opponents of organized crime, and until recently, Loretta Lynch—the highest-ranking legal officer in the US, the woman who ultimately has to assure officials and citizens in Mexico that her best people are on El Chapo’s case—was at the head of that office. She knows the prosecutors there. She trained many of them herself. The 2014 indictment was filed on her watch. She knows the EDNY’s case against El Chapo: its strengths, the potential pitfalls and how they will be handled. That’s the kind of familiarity that inspires confidence.
And at this stage in the process—with El Chapo is waiting in a cell outside Juarez, reading Don Quixote and thinking about the many tunnels he has dug, with officials in Mexico and the US in a state of understandable wariness—confidence is everything.
All the same, it’s an odd situation.
During his stay, El Chapo will likely be housed in the Metropolitan Detention Center (the MDC) on the waterfront in Sunset Park, just down the street from Industry City. The MDC is a large, cheerless place. I used to go there sometimes to visit clients, but never to the Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit (ADMAX SHU), which was designed to hold individuals nabbed on suspicion of aiding and abetting the 9/11 attacks, and where they will presumably keep El Chapo once he arrives. I’ve seen a few pictures of the ADMAX rooms. The furnishings are sparse: a small table, a toilet, a shower. Cells come equipped with bunk beds, so he may have a roommate, though probably not. In ADMAX, detainees can be in lockdown for up to twenty-three hours each day. Their every movement, within the cell and without, is recorded on video.
On court dates, El Chapo may get to see a little of Brooklyn, as he’s delivered from the MDC to the courthouse on Cadman Plaza, a distance of about four miles across the heartland of gentrifying Brooklyn: Greenwood, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights.
Transport will fall to the US Marshals, the same agency tasked with bringing El Chapo over from Mexico. I recently spoke with Lenny DePaul, a former Deputy US Marshal, about the challenges of handling high-risk international prisoners like El Chapo. He told me logistics in this case would be “a security nightmare.” DePaul is the former head of the US Marshals’ Regional Fugitive Task Force in New York, the 265-man squad that hunts down fugitives at home and abroad and brings them in to stand trial. Before that, in 1992, he was the agent assigned to guard John Gotti during his RICO trial in Brooklyn, which lasted over two months. DePaul struck me as a man who had lived through several security nightmares and knew more or less how they ought to be approached, so I asked him about the scenario for El Chapo.
“They’ll bring in SWAT teams,” he explained. “NYPD support, special operations groups. Basically, when you’re dealing with these high-profile guys, you want to move as quickly as you can, with a five or six car motorcade, advance people on the route, and snipers in place.” With Gotti, who was being housed in Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge was the hardest part of the transport, DePaul said. It had to be closed every morning while the motorcade crossed. For El Chapo, the most direct route, it seems to me, is up Third Avenue, past the Four and Twenty Blackbirds Pie Shop, past Hank’s Saloon, then a left onto Flatbush. But directness, DePaul advised, has nothing to do with it. The Marshals will have to plot out many different routes, secure them, and change which one they’re using on a daily basis. They may even use decoys: false convoys traveling on alternative routes while the real convoy is on Fourth Avenue, or navigating the BQE, depending on traffic.
“Bottom line, we don’t want anyone to get hurt. Everyone needs to go home safe, even the bad guys.”
The key thing for agents to remember, DePaul said, is that anything can happen. “You can’t let your guard down. You could be on trial for three months, and nothing’s happening, but you have to stay prepared, keep your eyes open. Use different routes, counter snipers, every diversionary tactic you know.” What about an escape? An escape seemed to be well within the parameters of “anything,” when you considered El Chapo’s history. I asked DePaul whether he had ever dealt with something hairy like that, and he told me a story about a fugitive he once hunted down in Costa Rica, a member of the Forty Thieves Gang who faked an asthma attack in the hope of tricking his captors into taking him to the hospital, where he had friends waiting to ambush the convoy, but DePaul said he and the other Marshals sniffed out the ploy, and anyway, he didn’t think there was any great risk of something like that happening on US soil. In fact, he thought an escape attempt here in Brooklyn would be “pretty much impossible.”
Why, then, the diversionary tactics, the decoys? The concern, he said, is with somebody attempting a hit. That is, the Marshals are trying to keep their prisoners—like Gotti, like El Chapo—alive and well enough to stand trial. It’s the same concern they have when hunting down fugitives. “This is what we do for a living,” DePaul said of the Marshals. “We lock up very bad people. Bottom line, we don’t want anyone to get hurt. Everyone needs to go home safe, even the bad guys.”
“History is ready to tell the story of drug kingpin Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán.” That was the lede for a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter. “History” meant the TV channel—a division of A&E Networks, jointly owned by The Hearst Corporation and Disney—which was announcing the development of a new scripted series about the life and times of El Chapo Guzmán, called #Cartel. The show is being developed by Chris Brancato, the former showrunner of Narcos, the Pablo Escobar saga, and ABC’s short-lived Bible epic, Of Kings and Prophets. The hashtag in the title of the series is significant. “The show,” Brancato told The Hollywood Reporter, “is a metaphor for the lives we present on the internet, the secret selves we reveal in supposedly private communication and the risks of not-so-humble-bragging on social media.”
A couple weeks ago, Univision and Netflix announced they were teaming on their own series, titled El Chapo, set to premier in 2017. Telemundo is developing one, too.
The El Chapo myth, it seems, is doing just fine.
How the man is doing, we’ll soon find out.
On May 9th, a federal court in Mexico ruled that the extradition of El Chapo was legal and could proceed. The request was filed in connection with the San Diego indictment, the first US case brought against El Chapo, back in 1996. Then another ruling—this one in connection with the El Paso case—once again favored extradition. On May 20th, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry added its approval to the chorus, saying it had received “sufficient assurances that the death penalty shall not apply if Mr Guzmán Loera were extradited and tried in [the US].” (Mexico, like many countries, does not extradite its citizens when the death penalty is on the table.) There are a few steps remaining, but the process is well underway, and government officials seem to be heeding President Peña Nieto’s instruction from back in January, to “achieve the extradition of this highly dangerous delinquent as soon as possible.”
Some people will get rich. Most will stay poor. Thousands will die. TV shows will be made.
The DOJ hasn’t yet indicated whether it intends to pursue the San Diego or the El Paso case, whether there are other formal requests working their way through the Mexican judicial system, whether it might ultimately opt to conduct El Chapo’s extradition under the auspices of one indictment, then consolidate the cases against him and send him to another federal district for prosecution—to Brooklyn, for example.
Attorney General Lynch will only say that she believes a resolution is “imminent.”
Whether the extradition and prosecution of the notorious Mexican drug lords has any real effect in slowing drug distribution or curtailing the violence that has a stranglehold on many parts of Latin America remains to be seen. Maybe it will. Or maybe the deck will be reshuffled, new bosses will rise, new alliances will be negotiated, new manhunts will unfold. The drugs will find their way into North American and European bloodstreams. Civilians living along production and trafficking routes—in Venezuela, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Michoacán, Veracruz, Sonora—will suffer daily encounters with violence, greed and depravity. Some people will get rich. Most will stay poor. Thousands will die. TV shows will be made. El Chapo will enter a courtroom in Brooklyn, wearing a jumpsuit, or something finer if the judge allows it, and a well-organized team of prosecutors will try to make him answer for some small portion of what he’s done.
This, we’re informed, is the story that history is ready to tell.
Dwyer Murphy is a writer and editor based in New York, and a former attorney.
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