Joaquín Guzmán, the famed Mexican drug lord known as “El Chapo,” has spent the past 22 months in a small, windowless cell in Lower Manhattan awaiting trial. On Tuesday, at a federal district court in Brooklyn, that trial will finally start.
“This is such an important case, because no single individual in Mexico is more responsible for the last decade of violence than Chapo Guzmán,” said David Shirk, a professor at the University of San Diego who focuses on Mexican politics and U.S.-Mexico border issues.
So why is Guzmán standing trial in New York rather than in Mexico?
Mexico has tried to bring Guzmán to justice but he escaped twice from maximum-security prisons in his native country. During his 2001 imprisonment, he enlisted the help of the prison guards to sneak him to safety – hiding in a laundry cart, as the legend goes. He famously escaped again in 2015, breaking out of Mexico’s most secure prison via a mile-long tunnel and evading capture for six months.
“Frankly, Mexico’s prison system has a long history of this sort of corruption and duplicity when it comes to drug-trafficking organizations because they’re so powerful,” said Eric Olson, deputy director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The 2015 escape seemed to make Mexican authorities acknowledge that Guzmán had the upper hand over their judicial system. The year before, then-Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam had ruled out extraditing Guzmán to the United States. “El Chapo must stay here to complete his sentence and then I will extradite him,” Murillo said. “So about 300 or 400 years later – it will be a while.”
But after Guzmán was recaptured in 2016, Mexico sent him north to face trial. “I think they recognized that there was weakness still in the system,” Olson said. “It became a situation where the risks of extraditing him became less than the risks of not extraditing him,” he added.
Shirk gave many reasons why trying Guzmán in the United States would be different from trying him in Mexico: Guzmán won’t be able to run his operation from his prison cell as he did in Mexico; judges and jury members are less likely to be intimidated or bribed into giving him a favorable ruling; and there are fewer legal tactics that could allow his lawyers to continually delay a trial.
For these reasons, the United States has a long history of trying criminals when other countries’ judicial systems lack the resources or ability to do so. But not everyone thinks extradition is the best long-term solution for bringing criminals to justice.
“We’ve been the prison system of last resort for the Western Hemisphere, and that absolves these countries of the responsibility to take care of their own problems,” Shirk said. “It’s in our interest to do so because many of these people are committing crimes against the United States, but arguably the hemisphere would be better off if the rule of law were stronger in all of these individual countries.”