Building the case against El Chapo: lost legal legwork yet another reason why his escape is a step backward

Latin America and the Caribbean

Obviously the United States is more than a little annoyed that Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the most wanted drug lord in the world, who U.S. and Mexican authorities chased for 13 years after he escaped from prison in 2001, was able to slip out of prison on Mexico's watch. Mexico has proven itself too corrupt to hold him, and now the United States really wants him. Interpol’s website even says that El Chapo is wanted by the judicial authorities of the United States rather than Mexico's.

Looking at the timeline of arrests, extraditions and deals in recent months, it looks like the United States was moving to make the case against El Chapo completely airtight, allowing Mexico to detain him until U.S. officials were completely ready to make the official extradition request. In March of 2014, the DEA had warned Mexico there was a risk of another prison break. 

The United States has long had a warrant out for El Chapo's arrest – he is wanted in Arizona, California, Texas, Illinois, New York and Florida on drug trafficking and murder charges. Although the U.S. was eager to extradite the kingpin to the United States when he was captured, Mexico was adamant it would dig in first.

Setting aside the issue of the millions in security assistance that the United States poured into Mexico’s intelligence capacity to find El Chapo and the extensive cooperation between the DEA and Mexican law enforcement (particularly the Mexican Navy), the United States (and Colombia) did a lot of legal legwork to gain insight into the Sinaloa Cartel’s operations and get to its leader.

It is no secret that the United States works with traffickers to negotiate plea deals in exchange for cooperation. It will often extradite people and then give them lower sentences in exchange for information. As a former U.S. counternarcotics agent told ProPublica, “We work with the lesser evil to get the larger evil.”

Here’s a brief timeline:

  • February 22, 2014: Mexican marines arrest El Chapo in Mazatlan with help from the DEA.
  • February 25, 2014: U.S. officials claim they plan to seek El Chapo’s extradition from Mexico to the United States.
  • February 26, 2014: Mexican federal judges rule that El Chapo must stand trial in Mexico. Officials in the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto publicly state that El Chapo will serve his time in Mexico before being extradited to the United States.
  • March 5, 2014: A Mexican judge denies El Chapo’s preemptive request to avoid extradition to the United States, citing the fact that the United States had not yet filed a formal extradition request.
  • March 25, 2014: El Chapo’s co-defendant Tomas Arevalo-Renteria pleads guilty to drug charges in a U.S. District Court in Chicago.
  • April 2014: U.S. prosecutors in Illinois make public a plea agreement signed by Jesus Vicente Zambada Niebla, alias "Vicentillo," the son of the Sinaloa cartel’s other top leader, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada. Mexican officials, including then-Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam, criticize the deal and express their opposition to extraditing El Chapo.
  • April 7, 2014: Colombian police working with the DEA capture Héctor “Rincón” Coronel, the suspected middleman between El Chapo and Colombia’s FARC rebels. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos approves his extradition to the United States.
  • September 2014: U.S. prosecutors file a new indictment in the Eastern District of New York charging El Chapo and his co-defendant Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada Garcia with more than twenty murders, in addition to drug trafficking charges going back to 2003.
  • October 30, 2014: Alfredo Vazquez-Hernandez, a “trusted lieutenant” of El Chapo who had been extradited to the United States in 2012, seeks a reduced sentence in the Chicago District Court after pleading guilty to drug trafficking charges earlier in the year. Weeks later he is sentenced to 22 years in prison for his involvement with Chapo’s Sinaloa Cartel.
  • January 17, 2015: Pedro and Margarito Flores, twin brothers who admitted to trafficking drugs for the Sinaloa Cartel, are sentenced to 14 years in the same Chicago court that processed Vazquez-Hernandez, Arevalo-Renteria and other suspects tied to Chapo’s organization. According to Frank Rubino, an attorney representing a convicted drug dealer who worked with the Flores brothers, the twins had been working with the DEA since 2008, providing information on the operations of the Sinaloa Cartel in the Chicago area.
  • February 2015: Some news outlets report that the United States filed a formal extradition request for El Chapo around this time. Attorney General Murillo Karam responds to the speculation by saying that he “could accept extradition,” but only after about “300 or 400 years.”
  • April 2015: Media reports continue to circulate about Chapo’s apparent ability to flout security in the prison where he was being held.
  • June 21, 2015: Colombia approves the extradition of Miguel Angel “El Flaco" Alfaro, a major player in Colombia’s most powerful crime group, Clan Úsuga (also known as Los Urabeños). El Flaco was accused by the United States of helping Clan Úsuga to “move massive quantities of drugs for some of the most violent drug trafficking organizations in the Western Hemisphere, including the FARC, Los Zetas, and the Sinaloa Cartel.”
  • June 23, 2015: The Department of Justice (DOJ) unseals a major indictment against 17 alleged leaders of Clan Úsuga labeled by the DOJ as "Colombia's largest and most influential drug trafficking and armed BACRIM criminal group." Those indicted included the likes of Cesar Daniel Anaya Martínez, alias 'Tierra,' who has been part of the group for the past 10 years. The criminal organization, according to El Tiempo, "provides armed support for [the Sinaloa Cartel] when it is in Colombia. The clan also plays host to the cartel representatives when they are in country and are described as full partners." The article goes on to explain that the Clan Úsuga is “in charge of arranging shipments to Europe and Asia and also coordinates directly with the Sinaloa Cartel.”
  • June 25, 2015: United States formally requests extradition of El Chapo
  • July 11, 2015: El Chapo escapes.

Now the conspiracy theories are flying. Some say the U.S. extradition request was a tip off, while others claim top Mexican officials let El Chapo out to restore order to the underworld. Some still posit he was released because he could incriminate top officials in the Mexican government. Many are questioning if there even was a whole tunnel built, or if the guards simply let him walk out of Altiplano prison’s front door.

While there is no doubt that Mexico’s justice system was too weak for El Chapo, his capture and escape have resurrected the debate on extraditions, with some analysts arguing that it serves as something of a crutch – allowing countries to outsource justice and removing incentives to reform their own systems.

Extradition can be a useful tool – El Chapo would still be in prison and would not have been able to continue involvement in cartel operations had he been in custody in the United States. But jailing top criminals in the U.S. is no substitute for serious reforms to effectively strengthen the judicial systems of partner countries like Mexico.

Had El Chapo been initially extradited, that could have been at least one win for President Peña Nieto’s government to point to in a sea of somber failures. Now, more than ever, Mexico’s current efforts at criminal justice reform will be under immense scrutiny, and likely be received with little faith by the public. El Chapo’s escape speaks more to Mexico’s corruption and relationship with the United States than it foreshadows a possible massive shift in the underworld or spike in violence. 

Capturing some cartel leaders has crippled some of Mexico’s most violent organizations, such as Los Zetas, but other violent groups have risen in their stead. So while it is important to hold those responsible for terrorizing citizens to account, including security forces, going after kingpins cannot be the sole focus.

Ultimately the Mexican government’s (and hopefully the United States’) goal is more to figure out how to get these groups to stop killing and torturing people than trying to eradicate the flow of drugs. The Mexican government will win the trust of its citizenry far more by investigating, prosecuting and holding criminals, than by focusing most attention on taking out kingpins within the existing system or seizing more tons of cocaine.