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As "El Chapo" Extradition Unfolds, Border Region Could See Impact

While Mexican and U.S. officials discuss drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán's extradition, some wonder if a surge in cartel violence along the Texas-Mexico border could follow.

Captured fugitive drug cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman is escorted by police in Mexico City on Jan. 8, 2016.

With Mexico beginning the process of extraditing Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán to the United States, the Texas-Mexico border is faced with a familiar question and a fresh one: How will the notorious drug kingpin's recapture impact the region's drug trade?

Also, what are the chances he will be sent to Texas to answer for his crimes there?

Guzmán was recaptured Friday morning by Mexican marines in Los Mochis, located in Guzmán’s home state of Sinaloa, after escaping from a Mexican maximum-security prison in July. Both Guzmán's fate, and the drug empire controlled by his Sinaloa cartel, hang in the balance, according to Shannon O’Neil, a senior fellow for Latin America Studies and the director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"Whenever we’ve seen a leader taken out, the waves of disruptions that follow are often quite violent as others try to poach the territory or [because of] fighting within the Sinaloa cartel," O'Neil said. "There is a likelihood that that could happen."

From 2008 to 2011, Guzmán’s group was partly responsible for the killings of thousands of people in Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, as it fought the Juárez Cartel for control of the drug corridors that extend into Texas and beyond. 

Despite his initial arrest in February 2014, a report released Wednesday by the Congressional Research Service indicates Guzmán’s empire could still control more than half of Mexico’s drug trade.

“The Sinaloa [drug trafficking organization] now controls roughly 40% to 60% of Mexico's drug trade, according to several estimates,” the report states. “It is known for trafficking cocaine, but moves all types of illicit drugs, including heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana, to cities throughout the United States.”

In its 2015 Texas Gang Threat Assessment, the Texas Department of Public Safety listed the Sinaloa cartel as having an active presence on both sides of the border. Last week’s capture doesn’t change the agency’s vigilance, according to spokesman Tom Vinger.

“While it is certainly a positive gain when the leader of a ruthless, transnational criminal organization is captured by law enforcement, we know that there are multiple levels of leadership running the Mexican cartels,” Vinger said in an email. “This arrest does not mean law enforcement can rest on its laurels. DPS will continue to work with our federal, state and local partners to combat the drug and human smuggling efforts by ruthless Mexican cartels and their operatives, who commit heinous crimes on both sides of the Texas-Mexico border.” 

After Guzmán's initial capture in 2014, little changed in Ciudad Juárez despite concerns the city might return to its violent ways if the hometown Juárez cartel perceived weakness in a rival or if criminal alliances otherwise shifted. Yet the city remained relatively calm, although some parts of the rural Juarez Valley, about 30 miles to the east, saw increased bloodshed.

The dynamic could be markedly different this time because of Guzmán's pending extradition to the United States. Two years ago, former Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam said Guzmán would be extradited in “300 or 400 years.” This time around, Mexican officials are being more cooperative.

“The justification for them not extraditing them last time was that they could safely keep him behind bars, and that proved to be not true,” O'Neil said. “So that justification is gone.” 

O’Neil said that because Mexico is now willing to send Guzmán to the United States — even after what will surely be a lengthy process as his attorneys are allowed to file several appeals — the impact on the border could be different, and Guzmán could continue to play a pivotal role.

“I think there’s a lot of scenarios where it could be business as usual. By some accounts, it could take months — maybe years — to be extradited,” she said.” It’s possible he could continue to run his empire from the inside.”

Though the extradition process promises to be long and complicated, Texas remains on the list of places Guzmán could end up to face an American court. He has been indicted by multiple offices of U.S. Attorneys, which are organized under the U.S. Justice Department, including the Western District of Texas.

A partially redacted indictment filed in 2012 by the district’s El Paso division charged Guzman with more than a dozen criminal counts that include murder, kidnapping and conspiracy charges.

Guzman is also wanted in Chicago, San Diego, New York and Miami. The Associated Press reported this week that there is no indication where the kingpin will be sent to face charges, though all of the jurisdictions are expected to make a play to have Guzmán prosecuted by their federal attorneys.

Despite all the uncertainty around Guzmán's future, some see Mexico's new willingness to work with American officials on his extradition as a signal of a promising new beginning for the two countries as they move forward on other issues, such as security and immigration.

O‘Neil said a lot of credit goes to Mexican Attorney General Arely Gómez González, who indicated when she took office last February that she was willing to have a discussion with American officials on issues her predecessor, Murillo Karam, deemed specific to Mexico.

“[The relationship] has been evolving to be more reciprocal than it had been since (Guzmán's capture in 2014),” O'Neil said. “If Mexico cooperates on this rather than just backing off, I think Mexico can ask for other types of assistance or involvement that they want, rather than it being pressured upon them. They can do it on their terms. It gives them a bargaining chip.”

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