Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán appeared in a New York court yesterday where he entered a not-guilty plea to 17 drugs and weapons charges.
The longtime head of the Sinaloa Cartel was extradited to the United States on Thursday after several legal attempts to fight the extradition order finally came to a conclusion.
Charges have been filed against him in New York, Florida, Texas, Illinois, Arizona and New Hampshire but federal prosecutors decided to proceed in New York based on the number of witnesses available and other factors.
The indictment against Guzmán alleges that he moved at least 200 tonnes of cocaine and other illicit substances by air, land and sea, obtaining billions of dollars in profits between 1989 and 2014.
In addition to the charges, prosecutors said they were seeking a $14-billion forfeiture.
The cartel boss’ extradition began Thursday afternoon when he was taken from his cell at the federal prison in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and transferred to that city’s airport by helicopter.
Before boarding, he asked: “What? Where are you taking me? Am I going to Altiplano?”
The newspaper Milenio reported that his captors did not answer, but Altiplano, the federal prison from which he escaped in 2015, was not his destination.
Instead, he was to be a passenger aboard a Mexican Air Force plane to New York, where he was handed over to agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
One observer of his arrival said Guzmán appeared surprised.
“As you looked into his eyes you could see the surprise, you could see the shock, and to a certain extent you could actually see the fear as the realization began to kick in that he’s about to face American justice,” said Angel Melendez, a special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who made a special trip to the airport to witness Guzmán’s arrival.
U.S. authorities were also surprised by the sudden announcement that extradition was under way. And while Mexican authorities said the timing was related to judicial procedures, one official described it as a “farewell gift” to outgoing president Barack Obama, the Washington Post reported.
Drug lords such as El Chapo have often been regarded, particularly in the poor communities they come from, as Robin Hood-like saviors for the financial benefits they have spread among their neighbors. But that’s not what Guzmán is, said one U.S. prosecutor.
“His story was not one of a do-gooder or a Robin Hood. Or even one of a famous escape artist who miraculously escaped from Mexican prisons on multiple occasions,” said Robert Capers, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
“Guzmán’s destructive and murderous rise as the international narcotics trafficker was akin to that of a small cancerous tumor that metastasized and grew into a full-blown scourge that for decades littered the streets of Mexico with the casualties of violent drug wars over turf.”
Capers said the proceedings against Guzmán could take several weeks to complete.
The public defenders appointed to represent him indicated the methods by which he was transferred to the U.S. might be challenged. “We look forward to addressing the allegations, that will include whether Mr. Chapo was extradited appropriately,” said Michael Schneider, one of the lawyers.
There has been speculation for a long time that Guzmán might give evidence against associates and corrupt politicians in Mexico in exchange for leniency, but information of that nature did not come up yesterday.
Instead, reported NBC, the focus was on a long and violent career that began in the 1980s when he took over Colombian delivery routes and began shipping drugs into the U.S. Hitmen were used to collect debts, silence witnesses, murder rivals and intimidate public officials, authorities said.
He established distribution hubs in eight American cities to feed the drug habits of millions of Americans, they said.
“He is a man known for no other life than a life of crime, violence, death and distribution,” said Capers. “And now he’ll have to answer to that.”
Guzmán is being held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan, where he received a warm welcome Thursday night.
“Chapo! Chapo!” came the chorus of screams from female inmates in a cell block overlooking the street as he arrived at the jail in a 13-vehicle convoy.
The jail is described as one of the most secure in the country.
“It’s got extra security above and beyond what you would have in a restricted housing area,” second only to the super-maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado, said the jail’s former warden in a report by Fox News.
“There is no other unit in the Bureau of Prisons like the high-security unit in New York,” said Catherine Linaweaver.
Until recently one of the world’s most wanted men, Guzmán is famous for two spectacular escapes from maximum-security prisons in Mexico, the most recent in July 2015 when he made a getaway from the Altiplano prison through a 1.5-kilometer-long tunnel.
He was recaptured six months later and sent back to jail.
U.S. authorities are aware of his escape skills. “. . . it is difficult to imagine another person with a greater risk of fleeing prosecution” than Guzmán, federal prosecutors wrote in a court filing.
But without corrupt officials and a local network of criminal associates he may have a harder time of it in the U.S.