Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, has been transferred to a prison near the US border prompting reports that he is close to being extradited, though his chief lawyer says this is premature.
El Chapo was moved from the maximum-security Altiplano facility in the early hours of Saturday morning to a federal prison nearly 1,100 miles north near Ciudad Juárez, just a bridge away from El Paso, Texas.
The predawn transfer was coordinated by the National Security Commission and carried out by the Mexican Army and the Federal Police.
A source inside the Security Commission confirmed to VICE News that the drug lord was moved with the intention of streamlining procedures to deliver him to the US authorities.
According to the official, the operation was a surprise and many officials only learned of the mission as it was being executed. The source explained "that only people of the level of the president and the interior minister" know the details of how and when El Chapo will be handed over. He estimated that the extradition process could be concluded in a week.
Guzmán is facing charges in the United States, such as drug trafficking, money laundering, conspiracy, murder, amongst others, in various federal district courts, including Texas, California, New York, and Florida.
But the head of Chapo's legal team, José Refugio Rodríguez, told VICE News that he had no indication that extradition was imminent.
Rodríguez said that, as far as he is aware, the Mexican courts have not ruled against the injunctions blocking the Mexican authorities from sending the kingpin to face trial in the US.
"Legally they should not have transferred him," he said. "They cannot extradite him now."
Rodríguez said that Chapo's common law wife, Emma Coronel, was informed at around 7am that her husband was in the prison in Juárez.
He added that he had been personally informed of the move at 2am by a non-official "trusted source", but had heard nothing from the authorities.
"We are waiting for instructions from señor Guzmán," he said, adding that he has sent one of his associates to Juárez.
The authorities released a statement on Saturday morning saying that the decision to move Chapo was due to "construction work" in order to "reinforce security" at the Altiplano prison. The statement did not mention extradition.
The Mexican government has said numerous times that it wants to extradite Chapo since he was captured on January 8, six months after he escaped from the Altiplano prison through a mile-long tunnel that began in the shower area of his cell. That was the second time that the drug lord had escaped from a maximum-security facility. The first time was in 2001.
Chapo's second recapture caused a media storm that only grew once it was revealed that, while on the run, he held a secret rendezvous with Hollywood actor Sean Penn and telenovela star Kate del Castillo.
Tonight, El Chapo will sleep in a maximum-security prison in Juarez, the border city that from 2008 and 2010 held the dubious title of "the most violent city in the world" because of its staggering homicide rate. This was in large part due to a turf war between El Chapo's Sinaloa Cartel and the local Juarez Cartel.
Earlier this year Chapo's lawyers and wife had repeatedly complained that he was being mistreated in the Altiplano prison, primarily through sleep deprivation that was sending his blood pressure dangerously high. At one point the drug lord 's lawyer said conditions were so bad his client wanted to be extradited.
Nathaniel Janowitz and Jo Tuckman contributed to this report.