The United States has long sought the extradition of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to America to face justice.
Now, with the U.S. closer than ever to getting El Chapo secured, he’s been transferred to a less secure prison in Mexico.
The move has security experts baffled, and locals are terrified he’s executing another escape.
A federal judge has ruled that the extradition of El Chapo can move ahead, Mexico’s Judicial Council said Monday. But the country’s Foreign Relations Department must still approve it and the defense can appeal.
The Foreign Relations Department has 20 days to decide whether to approve Guzman’s extradition to the United States.
Any extradition attempt can be delayed or stopped by a request to the court by attorneys for the Sinaloa cartel leader — a move El Chapo’s lawyer said they would do, a suspicious change in tactics just months after the drug lord was reportedly eager to proceed with the extradition.
Meanwhile, Guzman was moved Saturday from a prison outside Mexico City to one in Ciudad Juarez near the U.S. border. Questions have arisen on both sides of the border about the decision to relocate the convicted drug lord to a region that is one of his cartel’s strongholds.
A Mexican security official acknowledged Sunday that the sudden transfer was to a less-secure prison.
The official said that in general the Cefereso No. 9 prison on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas, is not as impregnable as the maximum-security Altiplano facility near Mexico City where he had been held. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss Guzman’s case publicly and agreed to do so only if not quoted by name.
Locals say the move has the town on edge — and many are already predicting his imminent escape.
“The town of Samalayuca, a tiny town in the shadow of its striking sand dunes, a giant electrical power grid and Mexico’s newest federal maximum security prison, is abuzz with speculation about its latest inmate,” according to The Dallas Morning News. “He arrived here over the weekend, amid speculation of what’s behind his sudden transfer from Mexico’s maximum security prison – the one he escaped from last summer – to Mexico’s newest joint. Several inmates had already escaped, but none in more brazen style than Chapo who’s pulled off the feat twice, including atop a motorcycle along a mile-long tunnel built under his cell.”
It leaves one to wonder if officials are now in a race against time to get him extradited to the U.S. — before he escapes again.
El Chapo first broke out of another prison in 2001 and spent more than a decade on the run, becoming one of the world’s most-wanted fugitives. He was recaptured in 2014, but slipped out of Altiplano, which many previously had thought was unescapable, in July 2015 by fleeing through the sophisticated tunnel that went up into the shower in his cell.
Mexican marines re-arrested him in the western state of Sinaloa in January, after he fled a safe house through a storm drain.
He was returned to Altiplano, where he was placed under constant observation from a ceiling camera with no blind spots, and the floors of top-security cells were reinforced with metal bars and a 16-inch layer of concrete.
Some Mexican media have speculated that the weekend move was a prelude to imminent extradition to the U.S., where he faces drug charges in seven jurisdictions. But authorities denied that.
And according to The Associated Press, multiple analysts agreed that there was no sign of a link between the prison switch and extradition.
The drug lord’s attorney Jose Refugio Rodriguez told reporters that he would continue trying to block the extradition.
He said that if the Foreign Department approves extradition, the defense will have 30 working days to seek a court order blocking a move to take his client to the U.S. to be prosecuted on drug charges.
According to The Dallas Morning News, “The decision to transfer him to Samalayuca, some 20 miles outside of Ciudad Juarez and near the Texas border, has baffled locals and security experts like Eric Olson of the Woodrow Wilson Mexico Institute in Washington D.C.”
“Moving him to [the Juarez region] makes no sense,” Olson said to the paper.
It makes no sense — unless it’s part of an escape plan.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.