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Mexico Moves to Extradite Drug Kingpin Called El Chapo to the U.S.

After long resisting requests from Washington, the Mexican government is moving toward extraditing Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo, to the United States to face drug and murder charges there, Mexican officials said on Saturday.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said the process could take months as it goes through the judicial system. On Saturday, the attorney general of Mexico, Arely Gómez González, said for the first time that the government took preliminary steps to proceed with Mr. Guzmán's extradition as far back as July, shortly after his escape from prison.

Mr. Guzmán's lawyers are expected to fight extradition to the United States, where he faces at least seven indictments in federal courts on charges of drug trafficking and murder.

Mr. Guzmán, who escaped from prison last year, was captured on Friday after a gun battle near the coast in his home state, Sinaloa. His capture was the culmination of a monthslong manhunt in the mountains of the so-called Golden Triangle, a rugged area in the northwest of the country. After an intense gunfight in the coastal city of Los Mochis, Mr. Guzmán was captured attempting to flee in a vehicle with one of his top lieutenants. By late Friday he was en route to the same prison he escaped from in July.

Transferring Mr. Guzmán to the United States would be an about-face for the government, which has in the past resisted efforts to extradite the drug lord as a matter of sovereignty. Mr. Guzmán, the head of the Sinaloa Cartel, would first serve his time in Mexico before he was sent to the United States, officials had said.

Almost exactly one year ago, Jesus Murillo Karam, the Mexican attorney general at the time, said: "I can accept extradition, but when I say so. El Chapo has to stay here and do his time, then I'll extradite him. Some 300, 400 years later. That's a lot of time."

Even as recently as three weeks before his escape from prison, through a mile-long tunnel connected to his shower stall, the United States made a formal extradition request for Mr. Guzmán.

But even if Mexico has come around to the idea of extradition, the legal process could take many months. Mr. Guzmán's lawyers have already filed motions to block any extradition, dating from his last imprisonment in 2014, and the process must go through the judicial system.

"It is not merely a matter of an executive decision," one of the officials said.

For now, though, the attorney general's office appeared prepared to press on with the early steps leading to extradition. Noting the efforts by Mr. Guzman's lawyers to file injunctions, a statement from the office on Saturday said that none of them "prevents the execution of these orders, much less the start of the extradition procedure."

A spokesman for President Enrique Peña Nieto declined to comment.

In the past, experts say, the courts have generally sided with the government in extradition cases. But the idea that the process could be expedited is unlikely.

"There is no fast-track extradition," said Agustín Acosta, a defense lawyer not involved in the case. "The process could take maybe as long as a year."

The United States has made several extradition requests for Mr. Guzmán, and officials are hopeful he may be sent there as law-enforcement relations have improved, a Justice Department official said on Saturday. But the department has not received any definite commitment, the official said.

"Is it possible? Yes," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in discussing international deliberations. "But I have not heard anything definitive."

The official noted that Mexico had agreed to send several high-level fugitives, including Edgar "La Barbie" Valdez, in September and said that relations between the two countries in law enforcement operations had improved drastically in recent months. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch has now met twice with Ms. Gómez González.

"There's a different mind-set," the official said.

In the aftermath of Mr. Guzmán's escape, relations between the Mexican and American governments were at a low. Offers of American assistance to Mexican law enforcement authorities, including drones and intelligence, were initially rebuffed.

The decision mystified many on the United States side, and even led some within the Mexican government to grow impatient.

Mr. Guzmán, with the weight of Mexico's most powerful drug cartel behind him, was a particularly well-resourced fugitive.

But the nature of the early relationship between the United States and Mr. Peña Nieto's government was one of caution. When Mr. Peña Nieto came to office, he sought to break with the administration of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón, who worked very closely with the Americans and devoted much of his time to prosecuting the American-led war on drugs.

Individuals in the Calderón administration said that toward the end of their time in office, there was a recognition that the Mexican government had done too much on behalf of the United States, to the point of even working against its own interests. They pursued the gangs with full force, breaking many of them apart while also creating an unpredictable group of organizations that were less disciplined and more violent.

But the black eye of Mr. Guzmán's escape, from the country's most secure prison, caused the government to begin rethinking its strategy. The reach of the drug baron, his ability to successfully bribe and threaten officials, bring incredible resources to bear and pull off the seemingly impossible have started to prompt a change of heart at the top.

One of the officials said sending Mr. Guzmán to the United States was simply the right thing to do, but denied that it was because Mexican institutions were not up to the task. But in both of his past escapes, Mr. Guzmán has managed to involve prison officials, pointing once more to the challenges faced by Mexico.

The manhunt for Mr. Guzmán reached a finale in the early hours of Friday, when Mexican marines stormed a compound in Los Mochis where he had sought refuge with several others. During the ensuing firefight, which raged for more than an hour, Mr. Guzmán escaped with a top lieutenant through a storm drain.

The men emerged through a manhole, and then stole a car. But the authorities quickly tracked them down, capturing them along the highway from Los Mochis to Navojoa. Mr. Guzmán was taken to Mexico City and, late on Friday night, paraded before media cameras in blue track pants and his signature mustache on his trip to the maximum security prison, Altiplano.

With an estimated wealth of nearly $1 billion, Mr. Guzmán was among the most well-financed fugitives in history.

The hunt for Mr. Guzmán may have been Mexico's most extensive manhunt ever. Investigators focused on the Triangle, along the borders of the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua. They identified Mr. Guzmán's logistics network, which included airplanes, runways and a range of property and vehicles.

The search began with the investigation into his escape, as the police rounded up the people who built the tunnel and flew Mr. Guzmán to a hiding place in the northwestern mountains. They tracked him to a ranch in the remote municipality of Pueblo Nuevo in Durango.

By October, they were ready to act. Special forces units aboard a helicopter had him in their sights, but they could not shoot; Mr. Guzmán was accompanied by two women and a girl, and the snipers held their fire.

As he fled from the snipers, Mr. Guzmán slipped and fell, injuring his leg and face, the authorities said at the time.

Though he escaped, security forces were able to capture seven of his men, and those arrests led to more intelligence about his movements.

Mr. Guzmán retreated farther into the mountains, cut back his guard, and limited his communications, Ms. Gómez said. But by that time, Mexican intelligence was tracking his moves, helped in part by the feelers Mr. Guzmán had put out to actresses and producers about making a movie about his life.

By the end of December, the authorities became aware that Mr. Guzmán would be traveling through a city.

The government began tracking one of Mr. Guzmán's chief tunnel architects, who was preparing different homes in the states of Sinaloa and Sonora for his boss's arrival.

Among those homes being watched was the one in Los Mochis, a city of some 250,000 near the Sinaloan coast. After nearly a month of surveillance, on Wednesday, the authorities noticed unusual activity inside the house. At dawn on Thursday, a car appeared. Based on intelligence, the authorities said, they knew that Mr. Guzmán was inside.

At dawn on Friday, federal forces began a raid on the house. They were met with high-caliber gunfire. Mr. Guzmán reverted to an old playbook: He fled.

Hours later, the Mexican president, using his Twitter account, announced the news of his capture.

[Source: By Azam Ahmed, The New York Times, Mexico City, 09Jan16]

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