Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman appears set to remain in Mexico's highest-security prison for the foreseeable future, as the government puts off U.S. extradition in a move that could bolster President Enrique Pena Nieto's nationalist credentials but also shine a spotlight on the country's woeful judicial system.
Experts say Pena Nieto's administration and those of his predecessors have proven unable to match headline-grabbing arrests like Guzman's with complex, long-term investigations and prosecutions of deep-rooted criminal networks. Cases have stalled and cartels have continued to operate. Last year, one of Guzman's closest allies walked out of the prison where the U.S. said he was running drugs from behind bars.
The Mexican government says there is no way Guzman will repeat the 2001 escape that let him roam western Mexico for 13 years as he moved billions of dollars of cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin around the world. Authorities here say they want to be the first to interrogate Guzman, and use the information to dismantle his Sinaloa cartel, a multibillion-dollar enterprise that dominates drug trafficking in much of Mexico and stretches into 54 countries.
Two federal judges ruled Tuesday that Guzman will have to stand trial on separate drug-trafficking and organized-crime charges in Mexico. Pena Nieto's administration said the man widely considered the world's most-powerful drug lord until his capture Saturday will face at least six other pending criminal cases before it even considers extraditing him to the U.S.
"I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon," Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said in a radio interview. "This is the start of a full investigation that will allow us to fully eradicate his organization. It would be pointless to do anything else."
Experts on both sides of the border warned that keeping Guzman in Mexican hands could squander the opportunity to exploit his unparalleled knowledge of the country's biggest drug cartel. U.S. prosecutors have proven far more capable of offering captured drug lords the incentives to co-operate with law enforcement, experts said.
U.S. officials routinely use family members as tools to pressure defendants into giving up information, granting visas to relatives of co-operative prisoners while threatening to leave loved ones penniless by freezing assets of drug lords who refuse to play ball.
Mexican authorities arrested Guzman, 56, along with his 20-something former beauty-queen wife and twin toddlers, but let her go because there were no charges pending against her. Observers called it a staggering missed opportunity that wouldn't have occurred in the U.S.