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Several US Prosecutors Vie to Try Mexican Drug Lord

  • Ken Bredemeier

Mexican soldiers and marines escort drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman (R) to a waiting helicopter at a federal hangar in Mexico City, Jan. 8, 2016.

The expected extradition of Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to the United States could take a year, but prosecutors in seven U.S. cities are looking to bring him to trial on a long list of murder and drug trafficking charges.

Federal U.S. law enforcement officials, including Attorney General Loretta Lynch, will ultimately decide where Guzman is tried. They will decide where they believe prosecutors have the strongest case against him linked to the hundreds of tons of cocaine, heroin and other drugs shipped across the border.

The leading possibilities appear to include San Diego, California, where the United States first filed charges against him in 1996; Chicago, where one of Guzman's top lieutenants is already in custody and cooperating with authorities, and New York where Lynch was the top prosecutor before becoming the country's top law enforcement official.

Guzman faces money laundering, drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder charges in the United States. Chicago is calling him "Public Enemy No. 1," the first time the city has used the moniker since it described crime boss Al Capone the same way at the height of the Prohibition fight against the sale of alcohol in the 1930s.

President Obama, on Tuesday, congratulated Mexico for Guzman's apprehension.

Guzman's lawyers have vowed to fight his extradition, but the Mexican government supports sending him to the United States for trial. Before Guzman escaped last July from a prison near Mexico City, Mexican authorities had balked at U.S. requests to extradite him.

Mexico is again holding Guzman at the Altiplano prison he escaped from, but authorities say they have beefed up security, stationing a military tank outside the prison and perhaps more importantly installing thick metal rods centimeters apart under the floor of his cell to prevent his tunneling out of the facility like he did six months ago.

"I think it's safe to assume," U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said, "that they understand that the world is watching how this case moves forward and that this individual needs to stay behind bars."

Before Mexican authorities captured him in a shootout Friday, Guzman managed to escape briefly through a tunnel hidden behind a closet mirror in the home where he was hiding in Los Mochis, a seaside city in Guzman's native Sinaloa state. A 20-meter passage led to a steel-hatch door, which officials said opened to the city's storm drainage system.

Mexican authorities said Guzman and his security chief, Orso Ivan Gastelum, fled through the drainage network for a kilometer before popping out of a manhole and hijacking a car, but were soon apprehended

Mexican authorities say they want to question American actor Sean Penn, who interviewed Guzman in October for a story posted on Rolling Stone magazine's web site Saturday, and Mexican actress Kate del Castillo who helped arrange Penn's meeting with Guzman.

Mexican authorities say they found out about Penn's seven-hour meeting with Guzman, which eventually helped them track down the Sinaloa drug chief.

Penn's interview with Guzman sparked criticism in the United States. Journalists questioned Penn's agreement to allow Guzman the right to review the article before it was published, although Rolling Stone said he did not change anything.

In the interview, Guzman boasted, "I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world. I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats." Penn described Guzman as "entirely unapologetic."

"If there was not consumption, there would be no sales," Guzman says about his drug trafficking. "It is true that consumption, day after day, becomes bigger and bigger. So it sells and sells."

Guzman's July 11 prison escape, his second in the past 14 years, was a major embarrassment for the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, which had been praised for its aggressive push against Mexico's top drug traffickers.

Guzman was first captured in 1993, but escaped in 2001 with the help of prison guards. After more than a decade on the loose, he was recaptured early in 2014, with the help of intelligence that U.S. authorities provided to Mexico.

Mexico has issued arrest warrants for more than 20 former officials, guards and police officers for their alleged participation in Guzman's escape last year. Ten civilians are also in detention.