In the nationwide sweepstakes among federal jurisdictions to put Mexican drug kingpin and escape artist Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman on trial, the place currently leading the pack is far from the border: Brooklyn.
Justice Department officials in Washington still aren’t commenting on the closely watched decision involving seven prosecutor’s offices that have indicted Guzman on drug conspiracy and other charges over the past two decades.
But two law enforcement officials familiar with the process told The Associated Press that it’s likely that if transferred from Mexican to U.S. custody in the coming months, Guzman would be sent to the Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the decision.
Brooklyn, an office once run by Attorney General Loretta Lynch, has long been rumored to be the front-runner while Guzman has been vigorously fighting extradition, an effort that could drag out indefinitely.
But wherever he ends up in United States, Guzman is certain to cause a media frenzy and present a security challenge that has bedeviled Mexican authorities. Last year, the boss of the cutthroat Sinaloa cartel escaped prison for a second time – using a mile-long tunnel and allegedly with help from crooked guards – and spent several months on the run before being recaptured in January after a bloody shootout in the coastal city of Los Mochis.
His apprehension, along with Mexican authorities’ decision to transfer him to a jail just across the border from El Paso in Ciudad Juarez, renewed speculation about a possible U.S. prosecution in one of the seven districts – Brooklyn, Manhattan, Chicago, Miami, San Diego, El Paso and New Hampshire.
U.S. indictments in those cities accuse him of overseeing a drug empire that poisoned American streets by smuggling countless tons of cocaine, heroin and marijuana via tunnels or secret compartments in cars, trucks and rail cars.
In a move seen as aimed at smoothing the path to extradition, prosecutors in Brooklyn quietly revised their indictment last month to drop more than a dozen death-penalty eligible accusations of specific murders by his henchmen in Mexico, while preserving murder conspiracy charges that could still result in a life sentence. Around the same time, Mexico’s foreign ministry said it had sought and received “sufficient guarantees” from U.S. officials that Guzman wouldn’t be executed.
Only San Diego – the first to indict Guzman in 1996 – and El Paso have made formal extradition requests. But behind the scenes, it’s likely that prosecutors from all seven districts have lobbied the Justice Department to land Guzman, in some cases traveling to Washington to lay out what they see as the strengths of their cases.
Their higher-ups would look to pick the one “that has the best chance to win and put Chapo in prison for the rest of his life,” said Jodi Avergun, a former federal prosecutor in Brooklyn who has held various high-level positions at the Justice Department. “They know they only have one shot at this.”
In Chicago – where a non-governmental crime commission has dubbed Guzman the first Public Enemy No. 1 since Al Capone – prosecutors bring to the table a case against Guzman that includes the cooperation of twin brother traffickers who recorded a phone call with the kingpin in 2008 negotiating the price of a shipment of heroin. The U.S. Attorney’s office there also has secured the extradition and convictions of more than a half dozen of El Chapo lieutenants.
Weighing heavily in Brooklyn’s favor is vast experience prosecuting international drug cartel cases, Avergun said. Starting in the 1990s, the office has built several complex cases strong enough to convince distant governments in Asia and South America to extradite defendants now serving lengthy sentences in US prisons.
Prosecutors in Brooklyn “have the sophistication to do this,” she said. “They’ve been doing it forever.”
There’s also the strong possibility that prosecutors from two or more districts with the best witnesses and evidence against El Chapo would team up to bring the case in a single location like Brooklyn, she added.
Whether Guzman will turn up in the United States anytime soon is uncertain. On paper, he is fighting extradition with appeals. But news reports out of Mexico have suggested he may be open to come to the United States in hopes of a plea deal that would rescue him what he claims are abusive conditions in his current lockup. One of his lawyers has said the decision would be “an act of desperation.”
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El Chapo, the attorney said, “has reached his limit.”
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed this report from Washington.