Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán may soon be extradited to the United States, 21 years after the first federal drug trafficking charges were filed against him. On Monday, a Mexican federal court approved an extradition request from the U.S. Department of Justice, a ruling that paves the way for the kingpin to stand trial in the U.S.
Before it can move forward, Mexico's Foreign Relations Department will have to approve the request. Guzmán's defense team will also have the chance to appeal the decision.
Days earlier, on Saturday, Guzmán was transferred from Mexico's Federal Social Readaptation Center No. 1 — a.k.a. Altiplano — to a less secure state prison in Ciudad Juarez, directly across the U.S. border from El Paso, Texas.
Despite official denials, the transfer was immediately seen as a first step toward transferring custody of the Sinaloa Cartel boss to the United States.
Eduardo Sanchez, spokesman for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, said the move was not made in preparation to extradite Guzmán; rather, Sanchez told Reuters, it was part of a plan to complete necessary security upgrades at Altiplano.
However, one state and one federal official, both of whom spoke to the news agency on the condition of anonymity, confirmed Guzmán's extradition to the United States was imminent.
The federal official told Reuters that El Chapo would likely be extradited to United States Penitentiary, Marion in Illinois sometime in the next two months. The state official said he believed Guzmán would be moved to the United States in a matter of weeks.
Guzmán's lawyer, Juan Pablo Badillo, called his transfer "absurd," "illogical" and "totally unexpected."
Guzmán had returned to Altiplano, Mexico's highest security facility, in January, six months after he escaped the prison through an elaborate tunnel dug directly into a shower in the drug lord's prison cell.
He spent months on the lam before the Mexican Navy apprehended Guzmán in the seaside town of Los Mochis. As actor Sean Penn described in his first-person account of their meeting, El Chapo was interested in making a movie based on his life.
At the time of Guzmán's recapture earlier this year, Mexican officials indicated they were finally ready to extradite the drug lord after years of balking at the idea.
"El Chapo must stay here to complete his sentence, and then I will extradite him. So about 300 or 400 years later — it will be a while," former Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam famously said in January 2015, just months before Guzmán escaped from Mexican custody.
Guzmán faces federal indictments for drug trafficking in eight U.S. jurisdictions, including San Diego, Brooklyn, Chicago and Miami.