Extraditing 'Chapo' to US could take a year: Mexico

Laurent Thomet
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The verdict could result in life behind bars for Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who was accused of smuggling tons of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States over a 25-year period

The verdict could result in life behind bars for Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who was accused of smuggling tons of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana into the United States over a 25-year period (AFP Photo/ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

Mexico City (AFP) - Extraditing Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to the United States could take a year or more, Mexican authorities said Monday, while the slippery drug lord waits in the prison he previously escaped from.

While the government seeks to ship Guzman across the border, authorities have beefed up security at the Altiplano prison west of the capital, posting a military tank nearby and reinforcing cell floors with metal rods to prevent another tunnel.

The extradition bid comes as new details about Guzman's surprise meeting with Sean Penn in October emerged, with a newspaper publishing pictures apparently showing that the US actor was monitored by the authorities.

The effort to extradite him marks a reversal from President Enrique Pena Nieto's refusal to send Guzman to the United States prior to his July escape from the maximum-security facility.

Authorities launched the process on Sunday -- two days after his capture -- based on petitions from courts in California and Texas on charges that include drug trafficking and homicide.

Raul Benitez Manaut, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said the foreign ministry could potentially decide to authorize the extradition within days -- short-circuiting the appeal process.

"They will try to extradite him as fast as possible," Benitez told AFP.

But Jose Manuel Merino, the international affairs official at the attorney general's office, said it was also possible the process could last as a long as four to six years depending how hard Guzman's lawyers fight it through injunctions.

Guzman's lawyer, Juan Pablo Badillo, has vowed to launch a "tough" legal battle that could reach the Supreme Court.

"I could say as an estimate that it could be at least a year," Merino told Radio Formula.

Previously arrested in February 2014, it took Guzman just 17 months to escape from the Altiplano penitentiary after his henchmen dug a 1.5-kilometer (one-mile) tunnel that led to a hole in his cell shower's floor.

A dozen prison officials have been arrested over the escape.

Officials defended the decision to put him back in the same prison, saying security was beefed up.

"Everything has been done to avoid another escape," a federal official told AFP.

Guzman's escape humiliated Pena Nieto, who had vowed to keep him behind bars and put him on trial in Mexico even though the drug lord had already fled from another prison in 2001.

- Penn was monitored? -

While Guzman could face US justice, a Mexican official said the attorney general's office wants to question Penn and Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who brokered his meeting with Guzman.

The newspaper El Universal published pictures on Monday showing that the two were apparently monitored prior to their interview with Guzman. The images are part of a Mexican intelligence report obtained by the daily.

Two photos, apparently taken from a distance, show a man resembling Penn and a woman, identified as Del Castillo, arriving at the airport in the western city of Guadalajara on October 2.

Another picture shows the pair greeting a man before taking a car that took them to an airstrip in the neighboring state of Nayarit, the newspaper said.

One of the two small planes they boarded is pictured, supposedly heading toward Guzman's hideout in northwestern Mexico.

Penn wrote in a Rolling Stone article published Saturday that he had received a "credible tip" that the US Drug Enforcement Administration "had indeed become aware of our journey to Mexico."

The US rock magazine posted an October 2 picture showing Penn shaking Guzman's hand during the meeting in an undisclosed jungle clearing in Mexico.

- Meeting led to capture -

Attorney General Arely Gomez said on Friday that Guzman had met with unnamed actors and producers to discuss making a biopic about himself, and that it was part of a "new line of investigation."

Authorities say Penn's meeting with Guzman helped them track down the Sinaloa drug cartel chief, who was nearly captured in a military raid in the state of Durango on October 6, four days after he saw the actors.

Guzman was finally captured on Friday in a raid that left five suspects dead in Los Mochis, a coastal city in the northwestern state of Sinaloa, six months after his prison break.

Legal experts have expressed doubt that Penn could face charges in the United States or Mexico.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough told CNN that Penn's meeting with Guzman "poses a lot of interesting questions for him and others involved in this so-called interview. We'll see what happens."