MEXICO CITY (AP) – Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, Mexico’s most notorious cartel kingpin who twice made brazen prison escapes and spent years on the run as the country’s most wanted man, was extradited to the U.S. Thursday to face drug trafficking and other charges.
Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department announced Guzman was handed over to U.S. authorities for transportation to the U.S. on Thursday, the last full day of President Barack Obama’s administration and a day before Donald Trump is to be inaugurated.
The U.S. Justice Department issued a statement confirming that Guzman was en route to the United States and expressed gratitude to Mexico for its cooperation.
A senior U.S. official said the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration took custody of Guzman in Ciudad Juarez, which is across the border from El Paso, Texas, and a plane carrying him departed for New York at 5:31 p.m. EST. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and agreed to give the information only if not quoted by name.
The convicted boss of the Sinaloa cartel, one of the world’s largest drug trafficking organizations, had been held most recently at a prison near Ciudad Juarez. He was recaptured a year ago after escaping from a second maximum-security prison through a tunnel dug to his cell.
The 2015 escape was highly embarrassing for the government of President Enrique Pena Nieto, and Mexican officials were seen as eager to hand the headache off to the United States afterward. Guzman’s lawyers have fought extradition since his recapture.
“It was illegal. They didn’t even notify us,” said lawyer Andres Granados, who accused the government of extraditing his client to distract from nationwide gasoline protests. “They handled it politically to obscure the situation of the gas price hike. It’s totally political.”
Guzman, who is in his late 50s, faces the possibility of life in a U.S. prison under multiple indictments in six jurisdictions around the United States, including New York, San Diego, Chicago and Miami.
A federal indictment in the Eastern District of New York, where Guzman is expected to be prosecuted, accuses him of overseeing a trafficking cartel with thousands of members and billions of dollars in profits laundered back to Mexico. It says Guzman and other members of the Sinaloa cartel employed hit men who carried out murders, kidnappings and acts of torture.
He was indicted by a U.S. federal grand jury in July 2009. A superseding indictment was issued in May charging him and Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada with a variety of drug, gun and money laundering charges as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise.
The Mexican Foreign Relations Department’s statement said a court had ruled against Guzman’s appeal and found that his extradition would be constitutional.
“The criminal Joaquin Guzman Loera was extradited this afternoon to face his pending legal cases,” Mexican Interior Secretary Miguel Angel Osorio Chong tweeted.
Guzman’s first prison break was in 2001. He spent more than a decade at large before being captured in 2014, becoming something of a folk legend for a segment of Mexico’s population for his defiance of authorities. He was immortalized in ballads known as “narco-corridos.”
The following year he broke out through the mile-long tunnel dug directly to the shower in his cell.
It was while on the lam a second time, in fall 2015, that he held a secret meeting with actors Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo. The encounter was the subject of a lengthy article Penn published in Rolling Stone last January, right after Mexican marines re-arrested Guzman in the western state of Sinaloa.
In the interview, Guzman was unapologetic about his criminal activities, saying he had turned to drug trafficking at age 15 simply 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.
Guzman was initially returned to the Altiplano prison outside Mexico City where he escaped through the tunnel. Last May, officials abruptly moved him to the prison in the desert near Juarez.
As a candidate, Trump accused Mexico of sending criminals and “rapists” to the United States, and he promised to build a wall on the Mexican border and make Mexico pay for it. Mexican officials have repeatedly said they will not pay for a wall.
Derek Maltz, who headed the DEA’s Special Operations Division until his retirement in mid-2014, said the timing of Guzman’s extradition less than 24 hours ahead of Trump’s inauguration could be seen as a show of good faith by Mexico.
“It’s a win for the good guys,” he said.
He added that Guzman’s extradition is not likely to immediately curb the Sinaloa cartel’s role in the drug trade, but it’s another signal 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.