Mexico Is Fighting the US Over Extraditing Drug Cartel Suspects

Famed cartel kingpin “El Chapo” may be serving life in a U.S. prison, but cooperation on other cartel bosses has ground to a halt.
October 14, 2021, 12:43pm
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks on September 15, 2021 in Mexico City, Mexico. U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the White House October 13, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks on September 15, 2021 in Mexico City, Mexico. U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at the White House October 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photos:  Hector Vivas and Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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Last week was supposed to mark a fresh chapter in the 200-year relationship between the United States and Mexico, a turning of the page on fraught relations and militarization in favor of a more holistic and cooperative approach to reining in the cartels that control the flow of drugs and migrants across the border.

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But before a delegation of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet officials could even set foot in Mexico City to discuss a new “Bicentennial Framework” for security, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s foreign minister lobbed a diplomatic grenade that threatened to blow it all apart.

Marcelo Ebrard, Mexico's top diplomat, spoke to reporters on Oct. 5, listing his priorities going into meetings with U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and other senior officials. The list included some standard talking points, like urging the Americans to help stem the flow of guns to Mexico, but then Ebrard publicly voiced a complaint about what had—until then—been a quietly touchy subject.

“Extraditions should have the same speed from there to here as from here to there, something that is not the case right now,” Ebrard said, referring to the process of sending criminal suspects to face justice in the U.S. or vice versa.

On the Front Line of Mexico’s Forever War Against the Cartels

The comment struck many in U.S. law enforcement as absurd, not least because Mexico’s criminal justice system is notoriously corrupt and ineffective, with less than 1 percent of cases ending with convictions. Mexico is also known for being difficult when it comes to extraditions to the U.S., especially with drug cartel kingpins. The process can drag on for years and frequently results in sensitive information about witnesses and evidence getting leaked in Mexico, former federal agents and prosecutors told VICE News. While the most infamous Mexican drug trafficker, ex–Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera is now serving life in U.S. prison following his 2017 extradition, requests to bring others of his ilk to stand trial have languished under López Obrador.

Ebrard’s remark also revealed a new dimension to the rift, with Mexico leaning on the U.S. to send more suspects south of the border. While Ebrard did not mention any specific cases—and spokespeople for Mexico’s attorney general and foreign ministry declined to elaborate—sources identified two people as being at the top of Mexico’s wishlist, both suspected of having deep connections to cartels and knowledge of corruption in their home country.

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One is Dámaso López Serrano, also known as “El Mini Lic,” the son of El Chapo’s former right-hand man, who has pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges and is awaiting sentencing before a federal judge in San Diego. His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. Mexican prosecutors are seeking Mini Lic’s extradition for his alleged role in the assassination of prominent Mexican journalist Javier Valdez. Two gunmen have been tried and convicted for Valdez’s killing, but Mini Lic is suspected of ordering the hit.

Mini Lic turned himself in to U.S. authorities at the border in 2017. His father, known as “El Licenciado,” was extradited in July 2018 and later testified against El Chapo, denying responsibility for killing Valdez and blaming the murder on El Chapo’s sons. Mini Lic is believed to have cooperated with investigations into the Sinaloa Cartel’s leadership, leading to concerns he would be killed if sent back. 

“Mexico wants him bad,” said one person familiar with the case but not authorized to speak publicly. “They’ve been pushing hard, and the U.S. said no.”

Mexico’s other wanted man is Genaro García Luna, the disgraced former head of the country’s federal security forces, now jailed in New York awaiting trial on charges that he took millions of dollars in bribes and worked on behalf of a Sinaloa Cartel faction. García Luna has pleaded not guilty and his attorney declined to comment. Mexican prosecutors announced last November that they requested his extradition over suspicious financial dealings. Like Mini Lic, García Luna’s pending case in the U.S. would need to be resolved before he could be extradited.

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López Obrador has also publicly stated Mexico’s desire to extradite the mass shooter who gunned down 22 people, including eight Mexicans, at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said the U.S. government “generally does not confirm, deny, or otherwise comment on the existence or non-existence” of extradition requests from Mexico. The DOJ issued a statement to VICE News disputing Ebrard’s assertion that the U.S. is not giving Mexico reciprocity with prompt extraditions, saying the two sides are “committed to vigorously pursuing the extradition requests pending in each of our countries.” 

“The United States is on track to complete a record number of extraditions to Mexico this year, and we expect that both countries will be able to accelerate extraditions, particularly as COVID-related delays are overcome in both countries,” the DOJ statement said.

The “record number” of extraditions to Mexico this year is fewer than a dozen cases, according to one DOJ official. By comparison, according to a tally compiled by Mexican newsmagazine ZETA, as of April the U.S. had pending extradition requests for 86 suspects, including 25 who have evaded capture, such as El Chapo’s longtime partner Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada and Jalisco New Generation Cartel founder Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera Cervantes.

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López Obrador’s government has extradited at least 44 narco suspects to the U.S., according to ZETA, including one of El Mayo’s sons in 2019 and El Mencho’s son last year, but it has declined to hand over the defendants most coveted by U.S. federal prosecutors. Those include former Los Zetas leader Miguel Treviño, aka Z40, (captured in 2013) and Vicente Carrillo Fuentes, nicknamed The Viceroy and chief of the Juárez Cartel until his arrest in 2014. 

One former member of U.S. law enforcement involved in extradition cases said the push to have more suspects returned to Mexico is aimed at discouraging future disclosures about corruption that could embarrass or incriminate Mexican officials. El Chapo’s trial, which ended with a conviction in 2019, included testimony from multiple extradited cooperators who described rampant corruption at the highest levels of Mexico’s government, with one implicating a campaign official connected to López Obrador and another accusing ex-President Enrique Peña Nieto of taking a $100 million bribe.

“If people know they are going back to Mexico, do you think they will sing to us? No, they're going to go back and get their toenails pulled out,” the agent said. “They already don’t extradite the most valuable ones to us, but now they are threatening to do away with all of them.” 

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Last week’s visit to Mexico City by Biden’s Cabinet members was meant to ease increasingly strained relations with López Obrador’s government overhow to fight the drug war. AMLO, as he’s also known, campaigned on a pledge to use “hugs not bullets” to reduce cartel-related violence in the country, and in practice that has meant scaling back efforts to hunt down cartel leaders. When the arrest of one of El Chapo’s sons led to a violent standoff in 2019, he ordered security forces to stand down to avoid further bloodshed. Since then, high-profile capture operations have all but ceased.

A year ago, Mexican officials made the unprecedented move of pressuring the U.S. into releasing Salvador Cienfuegos, a former top military general allegedly known as “The Godfather,” who was arrested by DEA agents on charges of narco-corruption at Los Angeles International Airport while trying to visit Disneyland with his family. AMLO was reportedly taken aback by the surprise arrest, and pushed for the general’s return on the grounds that his prosecution undermined Mexican sovereignty. After pledging to conduct their own investigation, Mexican authorities promptly cleared Cienfuegos of any wrongdoing, and he’s now a free man.

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In the months after Cienfuegos was released, Mexico’s Congress approved legislation backed by AMLO that limited how foreign law enforcement agents can operate in the country. The law stripped foreign agents, such as those from the DEA, of diplomatic immunity and mandated intelligence-sharing with Mexican officials. Mexico has also been unusually slow to approve visas for DEA agents, stretching out a process that normally takes a month into a wait of six months or more.  

Ken Salazar, Biden’s ambassador to Mexico, said last week that the U.S. is “working with the government on having the opportunity to again bring agents including our DEA agents,” but going forward they would operate “in a way where we’re doing it in partnership with Mexico.”

Extraditions have not stopped entirely. As recently as September 29, the U.S. shipped a suspect wanted for sexual assault to Mexico, and Mexico sent three defendants north on September 13 to stand trial, one for drug charges and the other two for murder and bank robbery. It’s possible that Mexico could threaten to halt extraditions altogether, but after the meetings last week the tone was concillatory.

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“I believe that we will be able to jointly establish a new era in our relationship,” López Obrador said. “We are carrying out a peaceful transformation that basically consists of eliminating and banishing corruption, which was Mexico’s main problem.”

Ken Magidson, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas who oversaw the prosecutions of two Gulf Cartel leaders, told VICE News that the extradition process has always been plagued by concerns about corruption in Mexico.

Compared to similar countries, such as Colombia, Mexico’s extradition requirements are onerous. Magidson said it’s a “higher standard than almost any other country,” and involves handing over a thick packet with first-person affidavits and evidence that can be used to identify informants and sensitive details about investigations. 

“Every extradition request in Mexico is always a delicate situation,” Magidson said. “That information is going to get out, no matter how much you try to secure it.”

As for the circumstances under which the U.S. would send a defendant back to Mexico, Magidson said it partly depends on the risk of retribution. For a suspected cooperator like Mini Lic, he said, there’s a possibility that extradition could be tantamount to a death sentence.

“That’s a legitimate concern,” Magidson said. “You’re not going to serve somebody up to be killed, that’s for sure.”

Nathaniel Janowitz contributed reporting.