The wild saga of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán met its apparent end last night, as the Mexican drug lord arrived quietly by jet into the McArthur Airport in Long Island, New York, flanked by DEA agents – a surprise to a nation that had largely spent the day bidding farewell to President Barack Obama on his final day in office. It was a relatively humble ending to an unbelievable run as the world’s deadliest and most well-known fugitive, known for his elaborate escapes from high-security facilities.
Guzmán faces a total of 17 drug trafficking, murder, money laundering and kidnapping charges accrued over a criminal career spanning four decades, and appeared in a Brooklyn court this afternoon to be arraigned on his U.S. charges. Mexico said Guzman will return to face charges there when (and if) he is released from U.S. custody. Due to Mexico’s policy on capital punishment, if Guzmán is convicted on any of the charges he will face life in prison.
A criminal complaint filed this morning chronicles how he led the Sinaloa Cartel, gaining power through “cash bribes” paid to officials “at every level of local, municipal, state, national and foreign” governments. Today he will be very far removed from his former life, when he had heavily armed private guards and what prosecutors have called “an arsenal of military grade weapons” at his disposal.
A last-ditch effort on the part of Guzmán’s lawyers to allow him to stay in Mexico failed earlier on Thursday, and arrangements were made soon after to unite him with U.S. officials, who’ve been doggedly pursuing him for years. In 2001, he famously rode out of a Mexican maximum-security prison in a laundry cart. A series of near-misses over the next decade (including once when police found only his still-warm cup of coffee) led to his last capture in January 2016, shortly after he spoke with Sean Penn for a tell-all article in Rolling Stone.
His lawyers have called the whole affair a “political move” on Mexico’s part, speculating it could be a distraction to keep attention away from other things going on in the country, and that the entire extradition process violated his rights. Multiple theories have already popped up to explain the timing.
One source told The Washington Post it was a “message” to President Donald Trump that future negotiations between the two countries won’t be as easy going forward. (Admittedly, that sounds somewhat counterintuitive.) Another claimed it was a parting gift to Obama. One source said, rather ominously, the message to Trump was “nothing is free.”
Whatever the reason, American prosecutors have El Chapo, and they clearly have no intention of letting him get away again. Guzmán’s penchant for elaborate escapes was clearly at the forefront of their minds when writing up the complaint. It details their multiple reasons for holding Guzmán in custody, including his “continuing criminal enterprise” and the fact that they have multiple witnesses willing to testify in a trial.
In reference to a 2015 escape, where cohorts dug an underground tunnel from his shower to a nearby abandoned house and took through it on a motorcycle, one investigator quipped: “No tunnel will be built leading to his bathroom.”
“Guzmán’s violent, international and multi-billion-dollar drug trafficking empire continues to pump thousands of kilograms of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana,” read the complaint. “Without question, Guzman will continue to be a danger to the community should he be released from jail.”
U.S. Attorney Robert Capers echoed those sentiments at a news conference preceding the hearing. “Who is Chapo Guzmán? In short, he is a man known for no other life than a life of crime, violence, death, and destruction,” Capers said. “And now he’ll have to answer to that.”
Guzmán entered a not guilty plea in court this afternoon, and did not seek bail. He will remain in jail, where he was greeted enthusiastically by inmates who chanted his name upon arrival last night. It’s unclear when the trial will begin, though it is expected to be a lengthy one, with at least 40 witnesses lined up to testify against the legendary drug lord.