MEXICO CITY (AFP) - The Mexican authorities have launched the process to extradite drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman to the United States, as they seek to question Hollywood star Sean Penn over his clandestine meeting with Guzman.
The extradition bid marks a reversal from President Enrique Pena Nieto’s refusal to send Guzman across the border prior to his escape from a maximum-security prison in July last year.
The attorney-general’s office said in a statement that Interpol Mexico agents went to Guzman’s prison near Mexico City to execute two arrest warrants for his extradition, two days after he was captured in a deadly military raid.
Mexico received the US extradition requests last year for a slew of charges, including drug trafficking and homicide. Guzman is wanted in half a dozen US states.
After judges rule on the extradition, the Foreign Ministry has to issue a decision. The timing of the extradition is unclear as Guzman can appeal against it.
His attorney has vowed to challenge the extradition all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Guzman is now back in the same prison that he escaped from on July 11 when he snuck down a hole in his cell’s shower that led to a 1.5km tunnel outside the prison.
Officials defended the decision to send him back to the Altiplano prison some 90km west of Mexico City, saying it remains one of the most secure and that it was reinforced with metal rods under the floors.
But the government’s decision to extradite him suggests that the authorities do not want to take the risk of losing him again. Guzman escaped from prison once before in 2001 before his February 2014 capture.
While Guzman could face US justice, the Mexican authorities said they wanted to question Penn over his October meeting with the then-fugitive.
A Mexican federal official told AFP that the attorney-general’s office also wants to speak with Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who brokered the meeting.
“That is correct, of course, it’s to determine responsibilities,” the official said on condition of anonymity, declining to provide more details, including a possible date for an interview with the stars.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough told CNN that Penn’s meeting with Guzman “poses a lot of interesting questions for him and others involved in this so-called interview. We’ll see what happens”.
US rock magazine Rolling Stone on Saturday published the interview that Guzman gave to the actor in an undisclosed jungle clearing in Mexico.
Despite Penn’s cloak-and-dagger efforts to keep the gathering secret, another Mexican official told AFP that the authorities found out about the meeting, which eventually helped them track down the Sinaloa drug cartel chief.
Guzman was recaptured on Friday in the seaside city of Los Mochis, in his native north-western state of Sinaloa, in a military operation that left five suspects dead.
Attorney-General Arely Gomez said on Friday that Guzman had met unnamed actors and producers to discuss making a biopic about himself and that it was part of a “new line of investigation”. Some legal experts, however, doubt that Penn could face charges in the United States or Mexico.
“I seriously doubt that charges will be brought against them even though Sean Penn took extraordinary steps to prevent the authorities from using his phone to track the whereabouts of Chapo,” said Mr Mike Vigil, a former senior official at the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
The meeting sparked criticism in the United States, where Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio told ABC television that the interview was “grotesque”. Mr Rubio also repeated his call for Guzman to be extradited.
Journalists questioned the ethical merits of the interview.
Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron tweeted a link to a December story about the dangers and death faced by Mexican journalists, commenting: “Good moment to remember what happens to real journalists who cover Mexican drug traffickers.”
Rolling Stone posted an Oct 2 picture showing the Oscar-winning actor shaking hands with the mustachioed drug cartel leader.
Penn wrote that they had a seven-hour sit-down, followed by phone and video interviews.
“I supply more heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana than anybody else in the world,” Guzman said over sips of tequila. “I have a fleet of submarines, airplanes, trucks and boats.”
The White House said Guzman’s boast about his trafficking exploits “is maddening”.