If extradited to the United States, Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán appears likely to stand trial in a New York federal court, where, in a strange and potentially game-changing twist, murder charges have been filed against the infamous drug lord.
According to Proceso, homicide charges against Guzmán in indictment 1:09-CR-00466-SLT in the Eastern District Court of New York mark the first time a drug trafficker has been charged for murders of non-US citizens committed outside US territory.
US Department of Justice experts quoted by Proceso say it is possible to charge someone for a murder committed outside the United States using the legal concept of “extraterritorial jurisdiction.”
However, this is typically applied for crimes against US citizens. In El Chapo’s case, the murders in question are of Mexican citizens committed in Mexico and include informants, law enforcement and military personnel, and members of rival drug trafficking organizations.
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Loretta Lynch, the district’s head prosecutor at the time, signed the indictment, which was filed on September 25, 2014. Lynch, named US Attorney General in April 2015, is likely to have final discretion over where El Chapo will stand trial, and it is expected she will send him to her former district.
El Chapo has been indicted in seven US federal courts.
According to the legal experts cited by Proceso, however, the murder charges create a potential vulnerability in the case against Guzmán by raising the possibility prosecutors are stretching US jurisdiction too far.
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Charging El Chapo with murder is an interesting decision given the risks involved. While El Chapo would almost certainly be convicted on drug charges, prosecutors may also be seeking a murder trial owing to stiffer prison sentences in murder convictions.
Yet, as Proceso suggests, no other drug traffickers extradited to the United States have faced murder charges. And federal prosecutors may be overreaching.
If prosecuted successfully, however, the move could create an important precedent for future extradition cases.
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The irony would not be lost on Colombians who have watched as numerous former paramilitary warlords, responsible for thousands of deaths in that country’s civil war, were tried on drug trafficking charges and then released after sometimes short sentences in jail due to their cooperation.
To be sure, US prosecutors and judges studiously avoided questions regarding wholesale massacres, high-level political assassinations and forced mass displacement. In one instance, a judge nearly applauded a former paramilitary commander because, as he told him, “You believed you were saving the lives of your people,” and then opened the door for him to leave prison in four years.