CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (Reuters) – Mexico extradited top drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to New York on Thursday, ending a career that included two jail breaks and a leading role in a national drug war, the day before Donald Trump assumes the U.S. presidency.
Guzman, 59, was one of the world’s most wanted drug kingpins until he was captured in January 2016. Six months earlier, he had broken out of a high-security penitentiary in central Mexico through a mile-long tunnel, his second dramatic prison escape.
“The government … today handed Mr Guzman Loera to the U.S. authorities,” the foreign ministry said in a statement, referring to a court decision on Thursday rejecting a legal challenge by his lawyers against extradition.
Guzman is charged in six separate indictments throughout the United States. He faces charges ranging from money laundering to drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder in cities that include Chicago, Miami and New York.
His career began in the opium and cannabis farming hills of the northern state of Sinaloa but he grew to oversee perhaps the world’s largest transnational cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine smuggling organization.
Guzman’s career was violent and his ambition to control more trafficking routes was a key dynamic in Mexico’s decade-long drug war from which his organization emerged mostly victorious.
The U.S. Justice Department thanked Mexico for “extensive cooperation and assistance in securing the extradition of Guzman Loera to the United States.”
Juan Pablo Badillo, a lawyer for the smuggler, said he was surprised at the extradition and said four appeals were outstanding against Guzman’s extradition.
“The transfer is not in line with the law,” Badillo said.
Guzman departed Ciudad Juarez to New York at 3.15 pm local time, one U.S. official said. The Mexican court system said in a statement Guzman would be tried in Texas and California.
It was not immediately clear if the timing of the move was an olive branch to Trump or a last-minute gift to outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama.
Trump has regularly insulted Mexico and threatened to tear up the NAFTA trade agreement that underpins its economy.
“This was a surprise for us. They are trying to placate Trump,” said a Mexican law enforcement official who asked not to be named.
Another Mexican official said the timing was firstly in recognition of Obama’s efforts to work with Mexico on Guzman, but also to show good will to Trump in sending a source of such valuable information on the criminal underworld to the United States, a Mexican official said.
Mexico is expecting to have to negotiate hard to limit the economic pain of Trump’s protectionist policies, and is sending its foreign minister to meet his aides next week.
Guzman was being held in a prison in the infamously violent border city of Juarez in the northern state of Chihuahua where his Sinaloa cartel beat the rival Juarez cartel into submission.
His lawyers had sought to block his extradition to the United States.
“It’s a good thing to finally get him to the U.S. side,” said a senior U.S. law enforcement official based in Mexico.
He said he did not think Mexico put “a whole lot of thought” into the timing of the extradition, that comes the day before Trump’s inauguration, “but it certainly isn’t a bad thing.”
(Reporting by Jose Luis Gonzalez in Ciudad Juarez and Mexico City bureau; Writing by Frank Jack Danie; Editing by James Dalgleish)