NEW YORK: Mexican drug baron Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, one of the world’s most notorious criminals, was extradited to the United States on Thursday to face charges on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Guzman heads the Sinaloa cartel, which is accused of generating much of the deadly violence in Mexico’s decades-long drug war and providing tons of narcotics to the United States.
The drug kingpin landed at MacArthur Airport on Long Island, the US Justice Department said. US television broadcast footage of what appeared to be his convoy arriving outside a New York jail, the street outside bristling with heavily armed US Marshalls.
His extradition caps a Hollywood-worthy cat-and-mouse game between Mexican authorities and the slippery 59-year-old drug lord, who escaped from prison twice.
His feats turned him into a legend of Mexico’s underworld, with musicians singing his praises in folk ballads known as “narcocorridos”—tributes to drug capos.
US prosecutors said Brooklyn federal attorney Robert Capers will hold a news conference at 10:00 am—less than two hours before Trump’s inauguration—to announce his extradition and arraignment.
Guzman is charged in six separate indictments throughout the United States, one of which is in New York.
The drug baron had fought desperately against extradition since being recaptured almost exactly a year ago in his home state of Sinaloa following his second daring jailbreak.
President Enrique Pena Nieto previously refused to extradite Guzman, but he changed tack after his latest escape in July 2015.
He had been held most recently in prison in Ciudad Juarez, which borders Texas, after being abruptly transferred from a penitentiary near Mexico City last May.
Timing: Dig at Trump?
The Mexican foreign ministry said he was handed over to US authorities after the Supreme Court and a court of appeals rejected his latest bids to avoid extradition.
The appeals court ruled that the extradition conformed with a bilateral treaty and that Guzman’s rights had not been violated, the statement said.
The US Justice Department extended “its gratitude to the government of Mexico for their extensive cooperation and assistance.”
But one of Guzman’s lawyers, Silvia Delgado, told Milenio television that she was surprised by the extradition, calling it “illegal” because another legal petition was pending.
In May, the Mexican foreign ministry approved extradition bids from California, where he is wanted for drug distribution, and Texas, where he faces a slew of charges including murder and money laundering.
Trump, who takes office on Friday (American Time), has publicly clashed with Mexico over trade and immigration issues. The Republican president-elect has pledged to build a wall on the US-Mexican border.
Alejandro Hope, a prominent Mexican security expert, said the decision to extradite Guzman in the last hours of Barack Obama’s presidency and before Trump takes office was “not a coincidence.”
“They didn’t want Trump to be able to brag about it, so they managed to hand him over in the final minutes of the Obama administration,” he told AFP.
But Alejandro Almazan, author of Guzman biography “The Most Wanted,” said the kingpin was “a gift to Trump” because Pena Nieto wants good relations with the new US leader.
Alberto Elias Beltran, Mexico’s deputy attorney general for international affairs, denied that the timing was politically motivated.
He said the government does not intervene in judicial rulings, that the case was resolved on Thursday and that Guzman had to be delivered “immediately” under the terms of the international treaty.
Guzman was first captured in Guatemala in 1993, only to escape from a maximum-security prison in western Mexico in 2001 by hiding in a laundry cart.
Marines backed by the US Drug Enforcement Administration arrested him in February 2014 in the Sinaloa resort of Mazatlan, where he was staying with his wife and twin daughters.
But Guzman escaped from prison again in spectacular fashion just 17 months later.
His henchmen dug a 1.5-kilometer (one-mile) tunnel that opened into his cell’s shower at the Altiplano prison near Mexico City, allowing him to slip out and flee on a remodeled motorbike that was fitted on tracks.
Guzman was recaptured in January 2016.
Authorities said they tracked him down after Guzman held a clandestine meeting with US actor Sean Penn and Mexican-American actress Kate del Castillo, with whom he exchanged flirtatious text messages.
His arrest likely leaves his long-time associate, Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, at the helm of the Sinaloa cartel.
But Raul Benitez Manaut, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the extradition weakens the group.
“There will be an internal fight between his sons and the sons of other of the founders,” Benitez Manaut said. “It could be violent—or maybe it could be peaceful.”