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El Chapo: Will he face justice in a US courtroom?

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, kingpin of the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel and two-time prison breakout artist, was caught by authorities for the third time on January 8th, 2016. This was merely eight months after his notorious escape through a tunnel drilled straight under his maximum security prison cell.

The arrest came after a narrow escape from a raid in October 2015 after El Chapo, probably after having binge-watched “Narcos” and getting a slight existential twinge, consented to a Rolling Stone interview with Sean Penn that was arranged after months of paranoia-fueled dead drops and burner calls that would make the writers of The Wire proud. In the interview, El Chapo confirmed his occupation as the world’s premier drug trafficker. He had also been in the process of negotiating his own biopic, to be produced by Mexican actress Kate del Castillo.

Many parallels have been drawn between El Chapo, the world’s most powerful drug lord, and the previous title holder, Pablo Escobar. Both had run massive drug empires that supplied cocaine to dingy clubs in Detroit and opulent boardrooms in New York City. Both have been listed on the FBI’s most wanted list. And both had, for years, meandered about their respective countries with impunity, despite their status as some of the world’s most wanted criminals and having started the equivalent of small civil wars.

What is particularly interesting from a legal and political standpoint is the comparison between the USA’s attempts to extradite Escobar from Colombia in the early 1990s and the similar process occurring now in Mexico for Guzman. Escobar had waged a seven-year war, with thousands of lives lost, culminating in his surrender after a legal guarantee against extradition was written into the 1991 Colombian Constitution. Escobar allegedly used his significant political influence to win votes for the non-extradition provisions and threatened renewed violence if the government were to betray him.

El Chapo, on the other hand, is under no such constitutional protection. The US has already officially requested his extradition from Mexico and the process is currently ongoing. Guzman’s lawyers have filed numerous injunctions against extradition that could take years to resolve. The real question is, will Mexico actually go through with their intentions of extraditing El Chapo?

The first barrier is a menacing one. The death penalty is alive and kicking in the US and Mexican officials have been seeking assurances that it will not be used should they allow for Guzman’s extradition. Guzman has been charged in several US jurisdictions with murder, which can carry a death sentence.

The second is political. El Chapo’s second escape and recapture has effectively shamed the Mexican government into cooperation with the US’s extradition efforts. However, if Guzman’s lawyers can stall his extradition until the upcoming elections, we may see a change of heart as politicians try to find a delicate balance between appeasing their northern trading partner and Guzman revealing the possibility of decades of government corruption should he be forced to appear in a US courtroom. How this will ultimately play out remains to be seen.