MEXICO CITY, Mexico – The Mexican authorities transferred the notorious drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to a prison in Ciudad Juarez on the US border Saturday morning, May 7, in a surprise move, officials said.
Despite speculation, Guzman's transfer had "absolutely nothing" to do with his possible extradition or deportation to the United States – where he faces extradition requests by courts in California and Texas for homicide and drug trafficking – Eduardo Sanchez, spokesman for the president's office, told AFP.
The authorities said they moved Guzman to prevent any escape attempt during construction to strengthen his maximum-security prison in Altiplano, 90 kilometers (55 miles) from the capital Mexico City.
Considered one of the world's most powerful drug bosses, Guzman has staged two dramatic escapes from maximum-security prisons, including from Altiplano.
He arrived at the airport in Ciudad Juarez at dawn, heavily guarded by some 150 federal police officers who had arrived earlier in three planes.
Mexico did not warn the US authorities before Guzman's transfer, a US government official told AFP.
The move "surprised everyone," he said, adding that the transfer had nothing to do with the extradition process.
Guzman's lawyer Jose Refugio Rodriguez said the move is "illegal" because his defense team has launched "processes to stop him being transferred from one place to another."
A helicopter transferred Guzman from the airport to a prison in the south of Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas.
Although not classified as a maximum-security prison, it has a section for highly dangerous prisoners that is "one of the safest," a National Security Commission source said.
Military soldiers guard the prison, and the road leading to the facility is under especially heavy protection, Mexican media reported.
The former leader of the Sinaloa drug cartel – one of Mexico's most powerful – Guzman staged a spectacular jailbreak in July 2015, when he escaped through a hole in his jail cell's shower that led to a 1.5-kilometer (one-mile) tunnel leading outside.
He was captured in January after months on the run in a colorful episode involving a Mexican soap opera actress and the US film star Sean Penn, who met with the drug boss in hiding.
In 2001, Guzman is believed to have hidden in a laundry basket when he escaped from another maximum security prison in Puente Grande in western Jalisco state, where he was imprisoned since 1993.
The authorities began the process of deporting him to the United States shortly after his capture in January.
President Enrique Pena Nieto has said the extradition would take place "as soon as possible."
Guzman fought the process until March, when he asked his lawyers to stop their efforts because conditions at his prison were intolerable.
He is willing to plead guilty to charges in the United States in return for a lighter sentence and confinement at a medium-security prison, his lawyer Rodriguez said.
Earlier this year, Guzman's lawyers said he was being held incommunicado and that guards were preventing him from sleeping more than two hours at a time, but said more recently that conditions had markedly improved.
The prison authorities in Altiplano had already made improvements at the facility, reinforcing points of access and perimeter security, adding cameras and monitoring command centers and prison conditions.
Guzman is accused of crimes including smuggling tons of drugs into the United States by boat, submarine, airplane and an extensive network of tunnels under the border.
A number of US jurisdictions, including New York, are vying to prosecute him.
Mexican officials have said the extradition process may take a year or more. – Leticia Pineda, AFP/Rappler.com