LAREDO — The wounds inflicted by drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán’s embarrassing escape from a Mexican prison in July still haven't healed for U.S. officials.
But on Thursday, a pair of Texas congressmen who lambasted the Mexican government after the kingpin's caper lauded the extradition of 13 alleged criminals from Mexico to the United States.
The group Mexican authorities handed over includes Laredo-born Edgar “La Barbie” Villarreal, believed to be the former leader of a wing of the Beltran Leyva cartel, which at one time was part of Guzman’s Sinaloa gang.
“The extradition of these 13 individuals wanted for crimes in the United States ranging from money laundering to murder to drug trafficking is a step in the right direction,” U.S. Reps. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, and Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, said in a joint statement. “We hope that our governments continue to work together to ensure that these and other criminals face justice in our country.”
Mexico also handed over Jorge Costilla “ El Cos” Sanchez, the alleged former leader of the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas; and Jose Emanuel Garcia Sota, who was charged with the 2011 killing of Brownsville native Jaime Zapata, an Immigration and Customs Agent gunned down in Mexico, the Associated Press reported .
In July, Vela, the Democrats' ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, called Guzmán’s escape from a maximum security prison in Mexico a slap in the face to the U.S. agents who “worked for years” to secure his indictment in the U.S. Guzmán is said to have fled through an elaborate tunnel that led from his private prison bathroom to a construction site about a mile outside his cell. He is still at large.
McCaul, who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, said in the days after Guzman fled that it was “absurd” to think he was able to escape without assistance from the Mexican government.
In their joint statement on Thursday, the congressmen said they hoped Wednesday’s handoff would spur Mexico into more aggressive action against its fugitives who are also wanted in Texas.
“Now it is time to strike at the few corrupt Mexican officials who make Mexico’s continued efforts to establish rule of law a difficult task,” they wrote. “For that reason, we continue our call for immediate action by the U.S. and Mexico to arrest, extradite and bring to justice former Tamaulipas Governors Tomas Yarrington and Eugenio Hernandez.”
The former elected officials are being sought by U.S. authorities for their alleged dealings with Mexican cartels.
In Laredo on Thursday, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw said the extradition proves that Mexico is as intent on battling homegrown crime as American officials are on preventing its spillover into the United States.
“It’s important that people understand that our relationship with Mexico is vital; we’re on the same side in addressing the Mexican cartels,” he said. “They understand how it impacts them, how it impacts their economy, how it impacts their future.”
Across the Rio Grande in Nuevo Laredo, where Villarreal once battled the notorious Zetas for control of the drug-supply routes that lead to Texas and beyond, some signs of the drug war still linger. The Mexican military has a headquarters just across from the once-popular marketplace a few blocks from the international bridge. Soldiers stand guard and some locals still refuse to talk about criminals and their gangs.
But to others, life is better than it was years ago. Alejandro Gonzalez, a restaurant worker who sat on a bench in the city’s Plaza Hidalgo, said during a cigarette break that he thought the extradition was a good thing for Mexico. He said he would have preferred Villarreal serve his time in Mexico first — but that's until he was reminded of Guzman.
“Oh right,” he said. “In Mexico, anyone can escape.”