WASHINGTON — As Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman sits locked in the basement of a Mexican prison, the U.S. Department of Justice is debating whether to seek the drug lord's extradition to face prosecution in one of several American communities that have indicted the violent Sinaloa cartel on charges of pushing millions of dollars of heroin and cocaine.
Federal prosecutors in at least four U.S. cities would like to bring the cartel leader to trial.
In Chicago, Guzman and 10 others have been indicted by a federal grand jury in the most sweeping case, accusing the cartel of shipping tons of drugs and threatening to behead the agent in charge of the local Drug Enforcement Administration office. City officials declared Guzman "Public Enemy No. 1," a move not seen since Al Capone.
In San Diego, U.S. District Judge Larry Burns has established a track record for handling Mexican mob cases. Burns has approved guilty pleas for 14 other top members of cartel hierarchies, including the infamous Arellano Felix brothers, sending many leaders away for lengthy prison sentences.
Another potential U.S. jurisdiction is El Paso, where several American citizens have been kidnapped and killed across the U.S.-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez, and the head of the DEA office in El Paso has branded the Sinaloans "assassins and hit-squad leaders."
Even as far away as Brooklyn, N.Y., the U.S. attorney's office took the unusual step of announcing over the weekend that, pending official word from Washington, they want to directly request Guzman's appearance on Long Island for a litany of drug charges there.
"Right now, the [Department of Justice] is sitting down with U.S. attorneys and deciding where the strongest case is, where he could get the most time, where best to move him," said Michael S. Vigil, a former top DEA official who has been briefed on Guzman's capture and was authorized to speak publicly about the case
Vigil said many of the charges involve racketeering and other offenses generally brought against mobsters in the U.S., making them "criminal enterprises."
Guzman, whose nickname "El Chapo" means "Shorty," allegedly pocketed millions of dollars, if not billions, by ruling his illegal network with brutal force. He was found by Mexican marines and U.S. law enforcement agents at a seaside resort in Mazatlan. Despite a network of escape tunnels and a phalanx of bodyguards, one of the world's most wanted fugitives — the U.S. offered a $5-million reward for his capture — was finally caught at dawn Saturday.
Like the U.S., Mexico has also charged the kingpin with violating drug trafficking laws. For Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's administration, Guzman's arrest was seen as a coup, especially because tens of thousands of Mexicans have been killed in the cartel wars and previous governments had failed to stop the violence.
It remains unclear whether any U.S. courts will have the chance to bring Guzman to trial, because Mexico may decide to keep him.
In addition, the extradition process with Mexico is fraught with controversy. Other cartel leaders have filed legal appeals and delayed attempts to move them to the U.S. for years.
And Mexico, which does not have capital punishment, will not turn over anyone to a country where the death penalty is a possibility. For that reason alone, the Justice Department would have to convince Mexico that U.S. authorities would be satisfied with life in prison without parole for Guzman.
On Monday, sources in the Mexican federal judiciary told The Times that attorneys for Guzman filed papers opposing the drug lord's potential extradition to the U.S.
"We're obviously appreciative of the fact that El Chapo was captured and we congratulate the Mexican government," he said.
If convicted in the U.S., Guzman probably will serve out his life in Colorado's federal "supermax" prison, home to dangerous, high-profile prisoners.