TONATICO, Mexico — The world’s most notorious drug lord, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, was extradited to the United States on Thursday night, whisked away from the country where he built an empire that delivered tons of heroin, cocaine and marijuana to the world.
Guzmán’s departure brings to a close one of the more dramatic chapters in the history of Mexican criminality. He was as much phantom as drug-runner: a man who escaped from Mexican federal prison twice, who ran the largest and most sophisticated drug cartel in Mexico, who flew in private planes to mountaintop lairs and dined with celebrities while he was the country’s most-wanted fugitive.
The transfer came after a Mexican court earlier Thursday rejected Guzmán’s last bid to avoid extradition. Officially, Mexican authorities said the timing of the extradition was related to judicial processes and not the U.S. political calendar. But one Mexican official described the transfer of the prisoner as a “farewell gift” to President Obama rather than an overture to President-elect Donald Trump, who has vowed to make Mexico pay for a border wall and threatened to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.
Even though the newly appointed foreign minister of Mexico, Luis Videgaray, developed close contacts with the Trump team during the U.S. presidential campaign, the extradition of Guzmán was intended to send a signal to Trump that not all negotiations with Mexico would be as easy as this one, the official said.
The message to Trump, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, is that “nothing is for free.”
Guzmán, who was recaptured a year ago and has been held in federal prison in the border town of Ciudad Juarez, has been wanted in the United States to be tried on charges of trafficking heroin, cocaine and other drugs across the border, and committing other crimes.
Guzmán was turned over to officers of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Ciudad Juarez and flown to New York. He landed at Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip, N.Y. Authorities said he was brought there because his indictment in federal court in the Eastern District of New York contained a provision that he must first enter the United States in that district to preserve the charges there.
Court records show the case was assigned Thursday to U.S. District Judge Brian M. Cogan, who was appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush in 2006. Officials said Guzmán is expected to appear in court Friday, though the exact time was not immediately clear.
According to his 2009 indictment there, Guzmán and other cartel bosses employed hit men “who carried out hundreds of acts of violence, including murders, kidnappings, tortures and violent collections of drug debts, at their discretion.”
“The first and most important thing is that he is gone,” said Alejandro Hope, a Mexican security analyst and former intelligence official. “How great that he is gone.”
The Justice Department had been pressing for months to have him turned over. The Mexican government approved Guzmán’s extradition in May and transferred him to a prison near Ciudad Juarez in preparation for his eventual transfer to U.S. custody. But his lawyers challenged the extradition order in court, delaying the process. Mexican officials have long indicated that the extradition could happen around January.
One of Guzmán’s lawyers, José Refugio, told a Mexican news program that he was “surprised” that the extradition took place so quickly after the appeal.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York declined to comment.
The son of a peasant farmer from the mountains of Sinaloa state along Mexico’s Pacific Coast, the 5-foot-6-inch drug lord, whose nickname El Chapo means Shorty, became a master criminal. Always one step away from an escape hatch or a trap door, he was a legend of the underworld who bribed his way to impunity and operated for many years above the law.
Guzmán was already a prominent drug trafficker when he was captured in Guatemala in 1993 and sent to Mexico’s high-security Puente Grande prison. Just before he was to be extradited to the United States, Guzmán made his first escape, slipping out of the prison in 2001 — as the legend goes, in a laundry cart.
Once free, he set about building the Sinaloa cartel into a ruthless and feared drug-
running organization. Guzmán publicly claimed responsibility for sending tons of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana to the United States and many other parts of the world, using underground tunnels, submarines, trucks, speedboats and airplanes.
Some considered him a folk hero for his free-spending ways, particularly among the farmers who served as his protection in the mountains around his home town. But his assassins murdered thousands in the battle for supremacy against other cartels.
In February 2014, after he had spent 13 years on the lam, Mexican Navy commandos tracked him to a condominium in the Pacific coast resort town of Mazatlan, where they burst into his room and captured him without a shot being fired. They relied heavily on intelligence provided by U.S. law enforcement officials.
Guzmán was imprisoned in a special wing inside the country’s highest-security prison, a facility outside Mexico City known as the Altiplano. At that time, the government rejected U.S. pressure for his extradition. But authorities’ claims that they could successfully hold and prosecute him collapsed in July 2015 when he slipped down a hole cut in the floor of his cell’s shower stall. He escaped through a mile-long tunnel that had been excavated by members of his cartel.
After six months on the loose, Guzmán was recaptured by Mexican federal police near the city of Los Mochis in northern Sinaloa. After he was arrested, Rolling Stone revealed that Guzman had held a secret rendezvous with actors Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo while he was a fugitive.
Zapotosky reported from Washington. William Branigin and Ellen Nakashima in Washington, and Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.